From the Universe…with Love

thank-youl-bag1Like running through my pre-theater ritual — the one where I check all the compartments of my purse three times to make sure I have my tickets — right before I take my dog, India, out for her nightly walk, I perform a routine.

I put on her pink harness and watch her walk in a few tight circles in my living room before heading towards the door.

I check my front left pocket to make sure I have my house keys. Then I stuff my back right pocket with a plastic bag or two (usually saved from a grocery trip, or I take one of the New York Times sleeves a friend saves for me).

I make sure my cell phone is in my back left pocket. It’s equipped with the perfect flashlight, one with a narrow beam and adequate candlepower for supporting me in picking up the by-product of all the kibbles my pooch consumes.

Just the other night, I must have failed to complete my ritual. After going down the front stairs and hearing my building’s front door click locked behind me, I took a few steps along the parkway and realized my right back pocket was empty.

Oh no. I forgot poop bags!

India had already lowered herself near a familiar tree to pee and was eager to enjoy the rest of our walk and, honestly, I didn’t want to go back up to my place; to trudge back upstairs and get a bag.

But I don’t want to be an inconsiderate neighbor, either. I contemplated whether I could feel okay with myself if I was a little lax on my cleanup responsibilities in the moment and came back to the spot India decided to use as her toilet during tomorrow morning’s walk and clean up then.

Then I thought…

What if an unsuspecting person, walking through the grass en route to their front door, soiled their shoes?

I contemplated going to the back of my building where I park my car. Maybe I’d find an extra plastic bag in my trunk. I didn’t want to have to go back up the stairs. I just wanted a plastic bag.

As I turned the corner, thinking I might walk through my alley, to my parking spot and rummage through my car, my eyes focused on a dark brown object on a walkway leading up to an apartment building. I decided on a closer inspection.

It turned out to be a thin poly film shopping bag, the kind you’d see at a bookstore or card shop. It was beginning to split to the side of one handle, but, I decided, it could certainly scoop up a small load (one of the advantages of having a smallish dog) and be tied off securely before tossing it in a nearby garbage can.

I know that an argument could be made for not using bags made out of plastic, but just then, upon finding one in my path, I thought PERFECT.

As a I picked up the chocolate colored bag, I noticed a few words were printed on the front –- in pseudo-fancy script, in a cheap looking gold. It said, Thank You for Shopping With Us. The first words I saw were THANK YOU.

What were the odds — that I’d find the exact thing I was looking for only a few feet from holding this thought — and that object expressed the gratitude I felt?

My mind recalled examples of times when I experienced this phenomena; times when I found the exact change at the register while the checkout line waited behind me, or times when I made a recipe and had just enough flour or butter to make the recipe.

I marvel anytime I seem to have EXACTLY what is needed in a situation. (More often than not.)

I often want to SEE SIGNS, to imagine that my experiences reflect some greater force at work. Then sometimes, I’ll remember that the universe is always sending little gifts, little reminders of things to pay attention to.

Knowing that all events have meaning without attaching any undue significance to any single one is no small thing.

A World of Post-It Notes

oil-change-stickerThe other week, while I was adjusting my seat belt and situating myself in my car for driving on a series of short errands, I looked up at the top of my windshield.

I noticed a sticker, placed there to remind me when to change my oil.

I tried to make sense of the information. Did the mileage on the sticker represent my odometer reading when I got my last oil change or a suggestion on when I should schedule the procedure? I wondered the same thing about the date.

My current mileage was less than the number posted for the next service date, and the return date was so long ago, I had a hard time believing that the car hadn’t been taken in since last February.

As a work-at-homer, I just don’t put many miles on my car. I got the message that I was due to have the oil changed, the fluids topped off, and the tire pressure and air filters checked.

As I studied the clear and white sticker on my car’s glass, I thought about all the simple signs in my daily life that serve as reminders of something I need to do or some information I want to hold in my awareness.

  • The living room curtain billowing inward, softly rounded like a pregnant belly, informs me that the window is open and needs to be shut.
  • The rush of tiny bubbles up to the top of the plastic liter soda bottle as I make the first rotation of the cap, reminds me to let the container sit before twisting and removing the cap completely if I want to avoid a soaking.
  • The doorway flyer I read at my neighborhood library or café announcing a free lecture or performance by someone whose work I value encourages me to check my calendar and make plans for the event, allowing me to savor a pleasure close to home.
  • Unexpectedly hearing the date for a new friend’s birthday, prompting me to record the information in my birthday card file and enabling me to brighten their special day.
  • I always act on the urge to test a desk pen on a piece of scratch paper before packing it in my purse after recalling how ink failed to flow recently from a pen I grabbed from the same place (and still didn’t throw away).

When I think about it, paying attention to the little things feels like the world is tagged with Post-It Notes. I want to live my life as if I can see colored paper tags EVERYWHERE.

I try to give attention to little things; things I want to enjoy in the moment because they’re beautiful or rare or temporal. I constantly see signs to exercise caution or pay attention to bits of information that might enhance my life.

These little things, these Post-It Notes of life, can hold warnings or opportunities. They inform and enrich so many things.

Fully taking in what I notice around me, from conversations overheard at the bus stop to sale signs posted in a window of a boutique is no small thing.


Saying Goodbye

stained-glass2My good friend Lynne passed away this past weekend.

She used to hate it when an obituary led off with a reference to a person losing their battle with cancer. To her, this sounded like death was a moral failing of someone who didn’t try hard enough.

In Lynne’s case, there could be no accusation around lack of effort.

She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer maybe 15 years ago. (I believe the original diagnosis was Stage 3, but I am unsure of the exact diagnosis and the exact dates. I’ve lived with her living with the disease for so long, I can’t remember.)

According to expert oncologists, she wasn’t supposed to live as long as she did. The fact of her survival against the odds often confounded doctors. More than once, during a recap of a recent doctor visit, she confessed wanting to respond to their incredulity by saying, “Like should I apologize for not fitting your model?”

I could go on for days about things I admired in how she handled her situation from the medical standpoint: how she became her own expert and advocate (on treatment options and clinical trials); how she put up with crazy long-lines for regular tests at County Hospital (being uninsured for most of the time she had the disease, she had to get medical care through public aid); how she lived with an ostomy for the past two years.

I’ve also been amazed by how she took care of her spirit. So many people that she became close to died. (Once you’re in the survivor club, this is unavoidable.) I’m in awe of how she took care of her father over the last few months of his life and did her best to oversee the well-being of her husband and son.

Over her last year or so, she designated her living room couch and nearby end table as the Lynne Zone. In this space, she gave herself permission to come first; to not worry about the demands of her family, to read or watch reality TV or nap all day if she felt like it.

Maybe five weeks ago, she told me, she was not getting the desired results from the last treatment she tried and the doctors advised she had maybe two months left. She elected to go on home hospice and made the Lynne Zone the cornerstone of her operations.

For a few weeks, she welcomed visitors and attended to practical matters, filling a spiral notebook with instructions for her son including things like where to find computer files and what she wanted done with her ashes.

I came to visit her a couple times at her home. I was glad and also felt guilty by how NORMAL she kept things. It wasn’t a normal time. We didn’t avoid talking about her health but we didn’t make that the centerpiece of conversation.

I offered to do anything she thought of. She asked after my niece and my work. She was happy to hear I was planning a vacation for later in the fall.

I was hoping to visit her at home again when she stopped returning my calls. After four days, I left a note for her husband and son in their mail box, asking for an update.

She had been moved to the hospice wing at RUSH, a major medical center in town, where she could be monitored more closely.

I went to visit her there last Wednesday. Her twenty-something year old son was sort of camping out on a big chair by her bed. He shared how she commented on liking the stained glass window there when first settling in.

As he stood over her bed, he said, “Look who’s here? It’s Debbie.”

She looked so small, but she was breathing easily. Her hair was dark and recently combed. I think she would have liked that her nurses or the hospice staff paid attention to this.

Jeffrey explained that she was talking until recently and told me a little about the pain meds she was taking in. I touched her arm lightly.

I just whispered, I LOVE YOU. I don’t know that I could have said or done anything else.

I would like to think she heard me or was aware that I was in the room.

It is hard to see someone you care about not being as full of life as the picture you have of them, but it is a great privilege, an opportunity I’m very thankful for, that I was able to say Goodbye.

Telling someone you love them, even if you’re not sure they can hear you, is no small thing.

Better to Give

das_morgengebet_ii_s-_laboschin_1900Recently, I traveled for a family event; a young cousin’s Bar Mitzvah.

I don’t have a very close relationship with the Bar Mitzvah boy (haven’t seen him for years), but I have a very special fondness for his grandmother. Eight years ago, when I was trying to start a new life in a new town, Judy became my family.

Ten years younger than my mother, she welcomed me to her home for frequent meals. She was also a wealth of information on local doings. She was ready to offer advice on where I could take a Qigong class or where I could buy myself a nice arrangement of flowers when my mood needed elevating.

More importantly, she created a safe space for talking about difficult things.

We shared thoughts about writing and feelings about establishing roots and a sense of place in a new setting. A poet and scholar in her own right, she came to live in a Midwestern college town because of her husband’s teaching career.

She always displayed a great respect for tradition and a strong curiosity. She was a great storyteller and introduced me to many factoids about my mother’s family that I didn’t hear before. She also knew a lot about emerging writers and trends in art and music.

As I was preparing for my trip, I went through mental checklist of what I wanted to pack and bring with me.

Toothbrush –- check. Bar Mitzvah card – check. Cellphone charger – check. Pantyhose — check… (I wear stockings so seldom, I had to buy a pair for the occasion.)

…And while I was packing, the thought crossed my mind that I should comb my guest room closet for a piece of artwork I was storing there.

I dated an artist almost fifteen years ago. I lived with him for a few passionate but uncomfortably chaotic months. Before settling in Chicago, he defected from Romania and made his way west through Yugoslavia and Italy.

Somewhere in Europe during this time, he acquired a few pieces of artwork that were easy to roll up into tubes and travel with. One piece was an engraving on silk depicting a rabbi engrossed in his morning prayers, Das Morgengebet II.

He recognized the quality of workmanship in Siegfried Laboschin’s piece and, I think, had a romantic feeling for the subject. Though not Jewish himself, he thought of the Jewish families he grew up with as the intelligentsia of his country, a group, perhaps, he liked to consider himself belonging to.

Weeks after we split up (Befitting our relationship, getting him to clear out of my apartment was not a quiet affair), he wanted to gift me this engraving. Maybe he wanted to feel magnanimous after he caused so much turmoil. Or, maybe he thought it represented something positive for me to remember him by.

I liked the print and accepted the gift, but, because of my associations with the control and craziness he brought into my life, I couldn’t bring myself to hang it on my wall.

It sat in my closet for years, in a pillowcase, an old wooden frame barely holding the matted fabric engraving in place. From time to time, I wondered whether it was “worth” something – as in monetary worth. But I didn’t change my attitude about not wanting to display it in my home.

A year or so ago, I decided to re-frame it, as a good first step to pass it on to someone who would likely appreciate it. It remained in my closet, but now it was wrapped in bubble wrap, under museum quality glass with new sable brown frame.

As I was packing for Benji’s Bar Mitzvah, the thought just came into my head that I should give the piece to Judy. She was much more identified with the Jewish faith and was actually quite a scholar of Hebrew.

I printed a paragraph about the artist for her, a Polish Jew born in 1868 and trained in Germany. I gave her Das Morgengebet II when I shared Sabbath dinner with her and a handful of other family members from out of town the evening before the main event.

I wanted to believe she would find a place for it in her home and ENJOY it, but I decided that even if she didn’t hang it in her own hallway, she would act as a link in the chain -– getting the engraving to someone who would want to hang it and think of it as theirs.

I thought of the saying, It’s better to give than to receive. What makes this true, or at least feel true, most of the time?

I give away clothes periodically, but that’s largely about my own need to free up space. I don’t think of this process as gifting.

I give some money each year to causes I support. I think of this as more than a tax deduction but not up to the level of gifting.

There’s a special kind of satisfaction in giving something to someone who NEEDS that thing. That’s close to why it’s better to give (than receive), but there’s more to it.

The joy is not about having a surplus of what you’re giving away, or not needing something. The emphasis has to be on the GIVING and not on the AWAY part.

It’s better to give when you’re maximizing the energy of appreciation. It’s a joy to give something to someone who is genuinely grateful to have that thing in his or her life. Whether a gift is simply money given without strings, or something picked out especially for a person based on their preferences and values, it feels great to be the GIVER.

Giving with the intention of bringing something to someone who naturally appreciates the gift is no small thing.

Good Scents

blommer chocolate factoryOn most Sunday mornings, I travel to the west part of The Loop to attend a program at my meditation center. Setting aside time for meditating within a supportive group setting has proven to be very grounding — a great way to start my week.

Just across the river from the bustling business district of Chicago, the neighborhood was once home to lots of factories and warehouses, most of which have now closed, or re-located or re-purposed into loft-style offices and residences.

I was running a little late this past Sunday, and I was in a hurry to find a space in the parking lot and lock up. But after pulling in between the yellow lines and popping out of my car, I had to stop….

I was arrested by the smell of the Blommer Chocolate factory.

Both bitter and sweet, subtle, yet unmistakable, the scent of chocolate wafted down Chicago Avenue and the streets of River North. I found myself unable to do anything; to run or even point my car key back towards my Toyota and engage the lock. I couldn’t seem to do anything except breathe. Deeply.

This family operated business has been filling this light industrial area with the sweet smell of chocolate since 1939.

I love the smell. (There is no need to count calories for whiffs.) It’s sweet and spicy and sort of earthy. At times, maybe a little burnt.

I love thinking that this business and the actual location of the factory represents a bit of history. Amid expensive loft condos, something is still made behind Chicago brick factory walls.

And I love the way a powerful and pleasant smell can take you by surprise and bring you into the present moment like few other things can. When I first detect a special fragrance in the air, my impulse is to identify and label it. Oh, that’s chocolate, I’ll think.

Then, I’ll try to place myself in my surroundings relative to where I think the smell is originating. It must be coming from the Blommer Chocolate Factory. Let’s see, Kinzie Street is that way.

They say that two things can’t occupy the same space in your consciousness at the same time. When the aroma of chocolate moves into my head, that’s the only thing I seem to be able to think about, at least for a few seconds.

And all I want to do is BREATHE and hold it. Be with it.

I stood in the parking lot for a few seconds; a big grin on my face.

After a while, my brain kicked into gear making associations. Smells are so evocative, so powerful in stirring up memories.

I started thinking about other times I was in the neighborhood and knew where I was because a favorable wind brought the scent of Blommer’s to me.

I thought about other strong scents that defined a place or time; the smell of oil and garlic from the Chinese restaurant on Clark Street when I lived nearby, or the more than pungent smell of cinnamon candy, red hots, Ferrara Pan Candy Company turned out.

When I lived in Oak Park along the expressway and had to park almost two blocks from my apartment, the stingingly sweet and spicy smell seemed to guide me home after I put my car away for the night.

Ahhhh. AHHHHH……..

Being stopped in your tracks by a pleasant smell, taking it in fully, lingering — is no small thing.

Beneath the Windshield

windshieldI just came home from a whirlwind excursion.

I drove to Madison, Wisconsin for a family event. I left Friday afternoon and drove back Saturday afternoon.

It’s about 150 miles one-way. It can be driven in 2 ½ hours if you don’t encounter construction or traffic, but, as that’s pretty unlikely, it usually takes closer to three hours.

Ah, I considered having a good stretch of time behind the wheel, behind the windshield. Just the word itself makes you feel protected in your moving bubble. Like an Arthurian knight, all will be well behind your windshield.

I rarely take on an uninterrupted stretch of highway driving these days.

I helped a friend move to a new home in Arkansas some years ago (I drove 12 hours straight through). For four consecutive summers, I drove to a retreat in upstate New York, and I went on a couple fabulous Canadian driving vacations. One took me through the Canadian Rockies and the other through the Laurentian range.

The longest road trip I took was when I helped another friend move from Chicago to Sonoma, California. She hired professional movers for hauling furniture. Our main mission was to bring her German Shepard, Jack, and her husband’s BMW out there.

Jack was full of anxiety and shed hair like crazy as he curled up in a sort of hammock we arranged in the back seat. We drove for four days — through the flat lands of Nebraska, following the tumbling tumbleweed of Wyoming and silently praying to ourselves that the wind tunnel created to make a path through the Sierra Nevada didn’t suck us into some unknown vortex.

I have learned from past road trips that it’s good to bring some music. Being from a generation where that didn’t mean cueing up a mixed playlist from my smart phone, I had set aside a few CDs…But I forgot them.

Playing music and watching the world from my driver’s seat can provide a lot of pleasure. It’s represents quality ALONE TIME. I feel in control. Safe. Constantly entertained by the changing scenery all around me.

But I didn’t have my planned music with me. I decided to make friends with my car radio — just beneath my window to the world.

I was able to get a favorite FM station from Chicago until I caught sight of the Chrysler assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois. At over 5 million square feet, I reflected how workers there might be extra careful not to leave their cellphone or lunch in their cars, not having the time to go to the parking lot and retrieve them.

At this point, I pushed my index finger against the radio’s SEARCH button. I came up with a rock station (WXRX), which I listened to until static replaced the recognizable guitar riffs.

Between Belvidere and Madison (where there are plenty of music choices catering to state university students), I caught signals for Country (WXXQ) out of Freeport and Classic Rock from Sauk City, Wisconsin (WIBA). I even got signals from a Hip-Hop station out of Genoa, Illinois (WYRB). Who knew?

I was tickled by how my SEARCH button would lead me to music I wouldn’t know to look for. (I quickly moved on when I locked in to a religious station’s signal, and there are plenty of them across this country.)

I got a strange idea in my head. What if everyone was equipped with a sort of SEARCH button? I contemplated how wonderful it would be, when not consciously directed to something, if you could press a button and pick up compatible signals (people or jobs or activities) to engage with until you were aware of a passion to move towards.

I hadn’t reached Janesville yet, and I was laughing out loud, delighted by my own thoughts.

I looked through my windshield. I thought about the trucks and SUVs that had passed me miles ago that I was passing now. I noticed that the block of clouds that had been hanging over the highway had moved on. I smiled at how signs for different gas brands were built extra high so from a distance drivers could see them and plot out which exit they should take.

Recognizing that life itself and my imagination can provide an endless stream of ideas sparked a sort of contentment.

Believing in your own capacity to never get bored is no small thing.


grant wood paintingA few days ago, I went to Chicago’s main art museum. A friend, who is a member, had tickets for a lecture on Vanishing Beauty, a traveling exhibition that I wanted to see before it moved on.

I considered that Vanishing Beauty was a great name from a marketing standpoint. It sounded more romantic and compelling than the simple description that appeared in the show catalog’s subtitle, “Asian Jewelry and Ritual Objects…from Tibet to Indonesia.”

After the lecture (given by a youngish scholar; a pony-tailed thirty-something man who was in his geek glory), we walked through the exhibition.

We examined roughly cut chips of amber and turquoise embedded in silver. Ritual objects or simply wearable decorations, the descriptions on nearby walls seemed almost as compelling as the objects behind glass.

Somehow, knowing that a silver cape was worn in a traditional wedding ceremony or that a girl couldn’t wear an ear cuff in public until a certain age rendered them more beautiful.

After seeing every item on display, watching short videos on silversmithing in Tibet and reading every wall, my friend left for an appointment and I decided to visit other parts of the museum.

The ‘Tute (as in Art Institute) had another special exhibit, America after the Fall – Painting in the 1930s.

I had not given much thought to what constituted American art, but I indulged in a long walk through the featured gallery. Not yet modern, and certainly not frontier, I could see themes and styles stirring.

Some pieces revealed European influences and training, but what the young American artists chose to fill their canvases with was decidedly different. The Depression was a pivotal time in America and impacted young artists largely as regional experiences.

Georgia O’Keefe’s desert skulls seemed to speak of the struggle to survive in a not very hospitable world.

Some artists took on questions of the times directly in very political art. Migrant workers and other marginalized groups were common subjects, bringing their overlooked plights to cultural consciousness.

Colorfully caricature-ized Harlem nightlifers, dressed to the nines, danced their troubles away.

Edward Hopper and Grant Wood seemed to take a much more internal approach in their works. While very familiar with Hopper’s Nighthawks diner, I got a different dose of isolation in his depiction of a gas station (Gas, 1940).

The iconic roadside beacon was depicted in not quite daylight, not quite evening. It was situated on the edge of the highway and the edge of a forest where lines blurred and next steps are unclear. I imagined many felt this way living in the ’30s.

I was really taken with Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing. I really only knew him as the originator of the often satirized American Gothic where two stern-faced Midwesterners stood with their pitchfork in front of an Iowa farmhouse.

After imagining myself walking into the rolling hills in his idealized farm landscape, I read the curator’s blurb about the piece and followed up at home by Googling information on his farm paintings.

A university art department’s website described this series as a visual balm. The painting featured repetitive patterns, a landscape not populated by people, during times when life was not easy on the farm, yet there was something sensual and soothing about this landscape.

It conveyed a sort of optimism in ways I thought of as patently American.

I loved experiencing the art and allowing myself to feel whatever came up. Then I loved reading about what I saw. What critics thought the artist intended, what was happening in the world when something was created made me appreciate my feelings even more.

That some things belong with other things because they were born in same era, or hail from the same geography, or because they are the same hue or in the same musical key is a kind of beauty.

Things have a certain beauty when you can see how they fit together.

Giving something meaning by placing it in a historical or aesthetic context is no small thing.

Gray is the New Black

gray hairWhen not utterly scared by the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, it’s been pretty common to exchange quips or jokes about the Republican nominee overheard during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Recently, over breakfast, a friend asked me if I had seen Obama on a late night talk show. He was poking fun at The Donald and his famous not quite rust colored DO (as in hairdo) while referencing a TV show that’s been especially popular with millennials.

In a very serious tone, the 44th President of the United States said, as if to the candidate himself:


My friend and I smiled as we both recalled this TV moment. We were oddly happy about how the standing president can flash his own sense of humor, how the office itself has not taken him out of his humanity.

Almost automatically, I followed this replay of a scripted joke with an unplanned one, also referring to the same TV favorite.

Gray is the new black!

Our laughter became louder.

We both found ourselves caught up in the moment. We both appreciated the internal process of constructing a funny remark based on what was being presented in real time.

…And we both IDENTIFIED with the comment. We found ourselves laughing at ourselves. Maybe a clever critique or slice from the sarcasm pie can elicit a chuckle, but the deepest laughter seems to come from personally recognizing being both the subject and the audience for the joke.

Both of us are around sixty. Both of us are into new art and music and consider ourselves pretty WITH IT.

We both want to be seen as youthful without appearing that we’re trying too hard to cop this look.

I don’t dye my hair, but, as I see more gray hairs take up real estate in my scalp, the thought is often in my mind. Should I (color it)? I don’t want to look old.

I have to laugh at myself. My vanity. My insecurity. Why should I care about whether people think I look young or old?

I don’t want anyone to make assumptions about me. I never liked the idea that people projected how I should act based on gender or ethnic group or career.

I certainly don’t want to think anyone expects me to behave a certain way based on how old they think I am.

Sounds like a valid concern, but I tell myself this shouldn’t occupy too much space in my mind. If someone makes any assumptions based on my having gray hair, it reveals more of a limitation of theirs than a flaw of mine.

But a residue of insecurity remains, I guess. I want others to see me in a positive light.

Then I think about being in good company. There are plenty of people that do battle with their psyches over how they see themselves and what their birth certificates tell them.

I think about baby boomers being courted by television advertisers. Generally tested as having high disposable income and a track record of brand loyalty, I’ll see stylish women and men in commercials promoting anything from ED remedies to credit cards to informal dinners at Outback Steakhouse.

We’re a formidable group. Even in a youth-oriented culture, we wield too much purchasing power to be ignored.

This thought makes me laugh a little longer; that I’m in such good company, that other people my age are simultaneously optimistic about their stage in life and worried about how others see them.

Being able to laugh at yourself, along with others who have the same indomitable qualities and the same insecurities, is no small thing.

“Mine” Fields

book box ourtsideI was walking down Wilson Avenue the other day, only a couple blocks from my home, when I saw the silhouette of a wooden box on a post on the edge of a front lawn.

On closer inspection, I discovered the orange and black box was an informal sort of library and, dare I say, a social experiment.

Sporting a graphic depicting a row of hardcover book spines, as if lined up on a shelf, and the invitation to Take a Book, Leave a Book, the box represented a mini lending library, one with no requirements for membership cards or due dates (or fines). appeared in smaller print on a silver strip near the bottom of the box in case passersby wanted to learn about the movement and how they might install a similar box in front of their home — and, maybe, change their neighborhood.

When I visited their website, I was charmed and inspired by both their mission and testimonials from Littlefreelibrary stewards, as they seemed to call themselves. One attested to an important secondary benefit, after promoting literacy, getting to know your neighbors.

I found myself delighted at the idea but a little skeptical.

Their mission: To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.

Sounds good, but does the system get used? Do people ever open the box? Do they take a book and leave a book as they’re instructed to do.

Several times over this past week, I walked my dog in the direction of this mini library. I observed other dog walkers, teens, young fathers and mothers -– swinging open the Take a Book, Leave a Book door and perusing the titles. I witnessed a couple pick-ups and drop-offs.

When no one else was in front of the box, I took a look for myself.

There were large print Doctor Seuss books, a book by Maeve Binchy, a popular Irish author who turns out novels for a fairly literate crowd, and a couple John Grisham or Robert Ludlum page turners. In a collection of maybe 30 books, I saw something for most tastes.

Chalk it up to the perfection of randomness… or maybe something else was at work. Maybe we can find most of what we need — even when it comes to entertaining reading — within our own community, from what someone else doesn’t now need.

I thought about friends who are dealing with aging parents moving into retirement complexes, or even facing their own challenges to downsize.

Over time, people collect so much stuff. Even after receiving advice from professional organizers or some list-icle type article from a lifestyle magazine about getting rid of things that haven’t been used for six months, people seem to be reluctant to give up their stuff.

People so often think of things in terms of owning or possessing them.

I think of young children learning the word MINE shortly after they learn to say momma and dadda. This brings up lots of serious conversations with caretakers.

It seems like a big sacrifice to a three-year-old to SHARE a cherished plaything after brandishing it about screaming MINE, MINE.  Even at an early age, people identify so much with objects as belonging to them.

There are so many traps in thinking of yourself in terms of what you possess; what objects are in your home and how much you paid for them.

To some extent, the only thing you can claim as YOURS are your experiences.

Take a book. Leave a book. I love it!

Isn’t it great to know that others are reading what you’ve read?   They might have similar experiences or maybe very different ones from the same material.

Expanding your understanding that BELONGING is more about sharing an experience and values than it is about claiming something as a possession is no small thing.


book box inside

New Day

india on edge of bed1I have learned so much since India has come to live with me; now just over three months ago.

She’s an undetermined type of spaniel and poodle mix (a Spoodle?), mostly black with a white chest and belly and white tipped paws and center stripe along her snout. She’s between a year and two years old.

She’s about 23 pounds. Curious and affectionate, very good with people and other dogs. She’ll be single-minded if she sees a squirrel she wants to chase, but has the sweetest temperament.

Of course, there’s the obvious ways she has brought change into my life.

I have a greater appreciation for routine. Not that I don’t enjoy a spontaneous adventure, but there’s something very grounding about having breakfast, or maybe a walk, at about the same time each day.

Actually, having time slots already designated for certain activities is sort of liberating. As any day goes on, I already know what time I can use for new activities.  I plan better.  I don’t feel rushed as often.

I have made a better habit of getting up and stretching. I have a greater respect for play.

It used to be automatic to sit at my desk all day, talking on the phone or eyes locked on my computer monitor. Now, upon seeing India curled up on her blanket in the corner of my office, and I’ll take breaks more often.

We’ll play fetch with a small green rubber ball down the long hallway of my apartment. Watching her slide on my hardwood floors, in hot pursuit of the ball, always makes me smile.

She reminds me that it’s okay, if I have no other commitments, to take a nap in the middle of the day.

Of course, she’s taught me a lot about love.

She greets me enthusiastically when I return home after being out in the world, no matter how long or short I’ve been away. She follows me around at times as if she is interested everything I do.

She shows me how happy she is when I rub her belly. She barks protectively when a strange noise can be detected in my building and is not ashamed of seeking me out or crawling into bed with me during a thunderstorm.

She can show herself as fierce or vulnerable…

And I don’t have to DO anything to win her love. Perhaps, especially when you’re young, it’s easy to confuse love with approval. Love is given freely from a sense of belonging together or the simple pleasure of being near someone’s energy.

One doesn’t deserve (or not deserve) to be loved.

But I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from India has to do with the virtues of having a short-term memory and optimistic nature.

When I wake up in the morning, I’ll naturally stretch out my legs. Maybe I’ll turn over on my stomach and try to enjoy another few minutes of sleep, or maybe I’ll roll over to a spot on my mattress where I hadn’t made a recent impression.

India, who usually sleeps on the area rug at the foot of my bed, seems to know when I’m awake and not merely following a cue to move from some unspecified dream time source. And when she senses I’m awake, she runs to the side of my bed.

She puts her front paws on the edge of my white sheets and balances on her hind legs. She does a sort of stutter step to keep her head, which she tilts to the side, above the top edge of my bed.

She is soooo excited – eager for me to pat the top of her head, and happy that I’m now going to join her in being awake. Her whole panting-stretching-dancing body seems to be saying, Come on. Get up. Get up.


That’s the greatest gift of all, to remember that any moment is a good time to start over.

Starting each day with enthusiasm, trusting that everything you might need will be provided, is no small thing.


Artist Among Us

ravenwood manor park concertA few weeks ago, I went to Ravenswood Manor Park for a neighborhood concert. It’s a small patch of trees and greenery with an adjoining playground where three residential streets dead end.

It’s home to a handful of great old trees and is resting spot for a few benches. A trellised redwood shelter is happily situated in the center. During past summers, I’ve unknowingly tripped upon small theatrical productions taking place there.

Though not restricted to area residents, I found out about the Spektral Quartet’s chamber concert there when I was walking my dog, India. I saw a flyer in the window of the music studio next to Le Petit Ballet, where SUV driving moms drop off their munchkins for dance lessons.

I had never heard of Spektral before, but I liked what their flyer noted would be included in their program. The program was to include a few traditional chamber pieces by the likes of Mendelssohn and some contemporary chamber works.

CONTEMPORARY CHAMBER? Is that some sort of oxymoron? I didn’t think contemporary composers gave much attention to developing works for two violins, viola and cello?

But their mission involves both showcasing local (composing) talent and creating programs that bring out something special about the venue.

On this perfect mid-summer night’s eve, in a park only blocks from where I spend far too many nights on my couch tuned in to whatever options Comcast is offering, I gave in to the spell of the Spektral Quartet.

Here were top-notch musicians bowing their way through works by Schubert and Steven Reich (a peer of Phillip Glass).

Even before a member of the group shared a few remarks about their philosophy, I had already slipped into appreciation mode. It seems, in grokking on this site-specific concert, I was the perfect audience for what they wanted to impart.

When sitting down to listen to trained musicians, it’s automatic to tune up your listening senses.

The precision of their runs, their changing pace and dynamics seemed to render the natural noises of the environment (the sound of the descending gates at the nearby train crossing, pets and their people enjoying the park) especially BEAUTIFUL.

The incidental sounds of our lives can always be thought of as the background score to our personal movie. Although usually random, they seem to fit the whole of our experience in the moment and are worth remembering.

Sound itself is MUSIC.

I was becoming a little intoxicated by this thought.

After one piece, a member of the ensemble provided a little narrative on the origins of the composition and asked the composer to step forward. True to the blurb on their website, they purposely mixed the contemporary and local with the timeless and European.

A little buzz traveled around the park as people on their folding chairs and blankets looked around to see if the composer turned out to be sitting close by.

It was a special thrill I think we shared — to think that there was a composer among us; to imagine that something or someone special could go undetected or unrecognized until the right moment.

Like the incidental sounds of the summer evening contributing to the atmosphere, knowing that there was an artist in our midst, also seemed enhance my pleasure.

Enjoying what’s obviously present in the moment was wonderfully paired with not knowing who might be sitting next to you and holding the possibility that things reveal themselves at the right time.

That we can hear sounds we don’t normally pay attention to as MUSIC and embrace the possibilities of who we might find ourselves sitting or walking alongside us is no small thing.

Resting Rocks!

rocking chairs charlotte airportPrior to going to Greenville, South Carolina a few weeks ago, I went through the ritual of trying to find a good fare online.

Though there were a few direct flights, they were expensive and left Chicago at ridiculous times, like 6:00 AM. (Getting to O’Hare at 4:30 in the morning is not my idea of a good start to a laid back weekend with family.)

I booked a Chicago to Charlotte flight that left at 9:00 AM with a connecting flight one hour and 18 minutes later. Not a horrendous layover, I thought, not imagining how much I actually enjoyed my time on the ground there.

I normally don’t think of airports as being part of my destination city. Yes, SFO will feature sandwiches made from sourdough rolls and at the Memphis airport, you can buy Elvis guitar picks (along with toothpaste and aspirin) at the sundry kiosks.

Airports are all the same, right? They don’t belong to any city or country. They all have signs (in English) welcoming you. They all have frequently updated departure and arrival information posted along corridors. More and more, you see charging stations for travelers’ cell phones and laptops.

I didn’t know Charlotte was an INTERNATIONAL airport and that it was so big! Ready for business travelers as well as college students and golfers. Welcome to the New South.

After I landed (on time, no less), I took note of the heavy midday walking traffic between concourses; the presence of regularly placed moving sidewalks along extended straightaways and the abundance of eating options (national franchises and local favorites).

I counted no less that 4 Starbucks between my arrival gate and where I boarded a regional jet to go the last leg of my trip (which, I found out later, was only 100 miles away).

I did a double take when I passed places to change currency. (Oh yes, I forgot this was an INTERNATIONAL airport.)

I prepared a joke in my head for when I got reunited with my kin about getting a good exchange rate when I swapped my Chicago crinkled twenties for CONFEDERATE CASH.

Well staffed and friendly (the woman I saw cleaning the ladies room took time to wish me a blessed day), I saw art on the walls and serious readers checking out the shelves in the bookstores.

Not that I didn’t expect they read in the South, I just didn’t think things would be as cosmopolitan.

I confess I was starting to feel a little disappointed that nothing about my Carolina airport experience informed me that I was in the SOUTH when I hit the center concourse.

I saw several large white rocking chairs in different arrangements.

It wasn’t just an art installation. I noticed that these rocking chairs were everywhere!  They conveyed a sort of hospitality without being over-the-top sentimental.

They were so different than typical airport chairs. Chairs normally are lined up in rows to get passengers ready to be herded through the boarding process. Or, they’re built onto molded tables in food courts (as if you’d want to take one with you).

Most airport chairs are for waiting. They merely provide places to sit between being in other places. When you’re waiting, you think you’re supposed to be some place other than where you are.

These chairs (discovered later to be made by the Troutman Chair Company of Statesville, North Carolina) were made for RESTING. For taking a break from the hustle and bustle of traveling. For taking care of yourself.

There are over 100 Troutman chairs scattered around the Charlotte airport. Some face the tarmac. Others are poised to give occupants a good view of fellow travelers on the move.

When you sit in a sturdy white, wooden rocker, you accept where you are right now.

Resting rocks! Resting in a busy, international airport rocks to the 10th power.

Being reminded that taking a pause, taking care of yourself, even enjoying watching activity swirl around you without letting yourself get sucked in is no small thing.


I Want to Be a Flamenco Dancer

flamenco dancing young girlOn Thursday evenings during the summer, the Northcenter and Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce sponsor free outdoor concerts on the plaza between Café Selmarie and the new sandwich shop.

They feature a pretty eclectic sampling of musical genres, from Peruvian folk music to American swing with a popular Beatles tribute band worked into the mix.

I have enjoyed going for years. I’ll bring a lightweight-folding chair (stored in my car’s trunk and ready for any bring your own chair type of event) and will usually buy something to eat or drink there. (The nearby Brauhaus restaurant sells very authentic veal brats from a kiosk in front of their door.)

My experience of this summertime staple has waned a bit because the demographics of my neighborhood have changed.

Instead of old Germans who wish to be by their social clubs and young working professionals who want to be near public transportation, many young families have started to call this neighborhood HOME.

I don’t know if there are actually more kids under five in the ‘hood or if younger parents don’t reign in their kids as parents did when I was growing up, but there is an amazing number of young children running around at these concerts. The boys will often flash long balloon versions of Darth Vader swords and the girls, will dance in their grandmothers’ hippie beads, wearing lots of different shades of purple.

While I don’t want to come down on music lovers and summertime revelers, of any age, the atmosphere, reminiscent of a daycare center right before nap time, can make it harder to focus on the performance.

Just the other week, I got there early so I could stake out a spot near the small stage to see the Martin Metzger Flamenco Ensemble. The group consisted of a guitarist, a percussionist and singer, and a dancer.

Decked out in a floor-length form fitting skirt, hair dramatically pulled away from her face, the dancer miraculously handled a few costume changes during the evening.

Very quickly, I lost my primo view to kids that saw the open space in front of the stage as a good spot for dancing and running around and to Millennials that decided to put their chairs right in front of mine.

The dialog in my head kicked in about this generation; how they move through the world with their ear buds in and their handheld devices on, how they seem single-minded in their focus on their personal agenda. How it seems that the rest of the world is INVISIBLE to them.

The volume of their conversations was high. It was as if they thought of the fine guitarist and singer as background sounds to their banter, not that their socializing was background to a performance. Between the rambunctious play of the children and self-absorbed audience members, I wondered how the musicians were able to concentrate.

I was copping a fowl mood.

Then I saw a little girl standing in front of the stage. Her gaze was transfixed on the dancer.

It was obvious that she had seen flamenco before and that it fascinated her. She wore a red and white ruffled dress and red shoes with a slightly elevated heel. Flamenco dancing shoes. She might not be ready to execute all the steps yet, but she was ready to look the part.

When the group’s dancer did a combination of moves, upright yet graceful in her posture, her legs churning quickly, the insides of her feet almost touching, the little girl mimicked her. Or, at least, she got the stomping part down.

I could almost imagine the thoughts in the young girl’s head.

– I want to be a flamenco dancer.

– I want to be beautiful but I also want to make noise. I want to be noticed.

– I want to honor those before me, those who teach me, but I also want to express myself in my own way.

And, for me, this image seemed to capture decisive moments of all kinds. Whether a person is choosing a career or place to live or someone to love. We can go through exercises of logic when coming to a decision, but ultimately the heart decides.  And it decides in a moment.

Seeing this girl enthralled by the dancer only a few feet away and above her kept my mind from going down the rabbit hole of dwelling on small annoyances.

That an image (and your awareness of its personal meaning) can turn your mood around is no small thing.


joe jackson's chairWhat could be more American than the Fourth of July (besides guns and monster trucks)?


During my trip to Greenville (South Carolina), it wasn’t surprising to discover they had a minor league team (a farm team for the Boston Red Sox). What I didn’t know until I perused my hotel’s What to Do In Greenville magazine, was that Pickens County was the home of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Baseball…Chicago connection…I felt charged with the mission of visiting his modest home, now a folksy sort of mini-museum, re-located to rest across the street from where The Drive play in a replica of Fenway Park; Green Monster left field wall and all.

They offered free tours of the house given by a volunteer docent; a very fit septuagenarian with a great memory for facts and an even greater appreciation for the extraordinary life and character of Greenville’s favorite son.

Walking up the few steps, then through the doorway, of this modest home, I was quickly bathed in cool, air-conditioned air. Beyond being a repository for memorabilia and a retail outlet for Shoeless Joe tees, coffee mugs and baseball caps, the tiny residence served as a welcome refuge on this muggy June afternoon.

The docent greeted visitors and asked where we were from. Then he pointed out Joe as a young player from a selection of wide team photos that hung on a nearby wall.

He handed us tri-fold cream colored brochures that captured most of the factoids, but I couldn’t take my attention away from him. His words spilled out like a testimonial from a faithful friend.

I knew that Joe Jackson, who, we were told, hated the nickname Shoeless Joe, was supposed to have remarkable baseball skills, but he sounded positively Paul Bunyan-esque.

From a poor, rural family, he went to work for a local mill, sweeping the cotton dust off the floor at six. By 13, he was playing baseball for their company team and was such a noticeable talent, his brothers used to try collecting tips from people who came to watch him play.

From his position in left field, he could throw the ball 400 feet to home plate where the runner could be tagged OUT — without a single bounce.

He batted .408 his rookie year (1911), the highest batting average claimed by a rookie. He finished his short-lived career with a batting average of .356, the third highest in baseball history.

Our guide set a little backdrop for the story of the 1919 scandal, the year Chicago’s south side team was called the Black Sox.

The sport of baseball was slanted a lot to benefit the owners. Many took advantage of their players. Owner of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, was known to be especially cheap.

According to our guide, some of Joe’s teammates wanted to enlist Joe in a scam to throw the World Series, for which they were heavy favorites, so that they could make some money from bookies.

That star players could make more money from this scheme than they could from their salaries or endorsements reflects the huge change in the economics of sports.

The docent’s voice was unwavering as he told the rest of the story; how Joe Jackson refused to be in on the scheme, how his performance for the series (12 hits and no errors on defense) was not one that reflects anything but a desire to win; how the group of players were acquitted.

But Joe Jackson and seven of his teammates were banished from baseball to send a no-tolerance message.

Joe and his wife Kate moved to Savannah, Georgia then back to South Carolina. They ran different businesses and led a comfortable life… but he couldn’t finish his baseball career.

He defended himself in the press and in person. He lived the remainder of his life with a clear conscience. And I couldn’t help but feel that, although baseball, didn’t re-instate him, his innocence and undeniable talent is kept alive by the people that believed him.

Standing in his parlor, in front of his favorite bat, Black Betsy, and radio, I felt his presence. I felt that he was at peace. He spoke his truth and the sons of his neighbors still think of him as a kind man and incredible athlete.

I think that somehow he was redeemed by the faith of Greenville.

…And today is the 4th of July, and I’ve been thinking about this encounter with the spirit of Joe Jackson.

I’ve been thinking that our national celebration is as much about the possibility for Redemption as it is about independence.

It seems important to Americans to remember the spirit of unsurpassed potential this country was born with and, not withstanding our many failings, embrace our potential as our guide in moving forward.

Believing that you can live up to your promise is no small (American) thing.

More Than Math

liz and jonathanThis past weekend, I went to Greenville, South Carolina. The state, which, only recently, took the Confederate flag down from its capitol dome, was not on any bucket list of dream destinations or tagged for any work related junket.

A few years ago, my eldest niece came to town with her boyfriend and dog (and his two dogs) and made a home. Or, maybe I should say, made a household together. Making a home was part of this week’s celebration.

Liz and Jonathan got jobs, got engaged, found a house, got married then moved into their new home — in pretty much that order. They met a few years ago in Knoxville where my niece attended grad school.

They thought about staging a bigger wedding right after trading in their Tennessee license plates for riding behind the South Carolina’s motto, While I breathe, I hope until Liz, not wanting wedding planning to take over their lives, cut those plans short.

After a few years of renting (not easy to do with 3 dogs), they decided to buy a house. They eloped after the real estate deal was struck and before the closing.

Maybe influenced by friends and family, feeling deprived of a formal event to mark the milestone, they decided to host a celebration over this weekend – a sort of housewarming/getting hitched party. Suiting their personalities, this party was a very CHILL affair.

Friends and family (mostly from Liz’s side as the couple plans to visit his family in Tennessee over the Fourth) came in from Chicago, New York and DC.

They helped coordinate airport transportation and made hotel recommendations. They even offered space (and blow-up mattresses) for a few guests in their new 5-bedroom house.

The saying certainly rang true over these June days…If you fill up your ice chests, they will come.

The clan gathered.

One of Liz’s cousins (by marriage) on her father’s side is a professional chef. He spoiled all of us over the weekend with his culinary skills and his ability to create an easeful environment.

He traveled with his own knives and a magic boom box, which was always ON. Its endless play list had us entertained and in the moment all weekend.

My sister Barb, the Confection Queen, made the components of a tiered chocolate cake and took on the task of driving all the pieces out from Elmhurst, Illinois for final assembly in Liz and Jonathan’s new kitchen.

My family is small. Liz’ s father’s family is large. For the weekend, I felt like part of their extended family.

I thought about any CLAN convening, occasions when family members, now often scattered around the country, would gather in one place.

A year ago, they got together for matriarch Anne’s 90th birthday; brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins – lots of cousins.

They gather for weddings and funerals – when they officially add one more name on their roster or have to say goodbye to a loved one.

But attending these gatherings are about more than addition or subtraction.

My sister Rona, Liz’s mom, who we lost to cancer 15 years ago, had an appreciative but ironic take on her adopted family’s coming together ritual.

Shortly before the clan gathered for her own memorial, she remarked, “They do funerals really well. They SHOW UP.”

Witnessing Liz’s other aunts help in the kitchen and the story-swapping that took place between childhood and college friends, former neighbors from Tennessee and new friends from her and Jonathan’s new home state, I felt how much those gathered wanted to SHOW UP for this weekend.

(I know Liz’s mother would have loved hanging out with us.)

Being able to celebrate an occasion with people who’ve seen you at your BEST and at your WORST is no small thing.

Morning Stillness

wilson ave at 6 AMI rarely set my alarm clock.

If I notice a little morning light streaming into my bedroom and am able to make out the glowing red digits on my clock radio (a dependable GE number, ready, no doubt, for the small appliance museum), and I can see that it’s after 6:00, I decide I’m ready for the day.

Now that I have a dog, it’s like having a truth machine (a better term than a lie detector). If I stir even the slightest bit underneath my cool white sheets, the jig is up. India knows I’m awake. There’s no use pretending otherwise.

She’ll put her paws up on the side of my bed as I brush the wispy dreamtime strands of hair out of my face. She’ll look at me with soft, loving deep space dark eyes as she balances on her hind legs and tries to position her head under my outstretched hand.

She doesn’t bark. She just bounces around the side of my bed with great excitement. Taking long naps during the day as she does, she’s probably been awake already for some time, just waiting for this moment — when she can detect that I’m awake, too.

“Come on. Come on. Let’s go,” she seems to be telling me. “The day has started. Let’s go see what’s happening?”

I stumble to find a pair of shorts and a tee to put on (deciding the one I wore yesterday will do). I fill my pockets with my over-sized ring of keys and a few plastic bags, poop bags that I’ve either been gifted (I have people saving NY Times delivery sleeves for me) or pilfered from a re-cycling bin at a local grocery store.

India puts up a bit of a fuss while I get her little pink harness on then quickly forgets her discomfort as she leads me to the door so we could start our morning walk.

She might not pee for ten minutes. She’s quick to the door not out of a sense of urgency. It’s more like she’s bursting with the expectation of adventure; a simple sort of joy.

I like to mix up our routes. The train might still cross our path, but it doesn’t run as frequently as it does during prime commuting time. We’ll come across an occasional jogger, an over-achieving backpack burdened teen, or other dogs and their people on leashes, but, for the most part, the neighborhood is still quiet.

I love the stillness of the morning.

It’s still cool from the night. Birds and insects are talking to each other. I don’t try to figure anything out. My mind doesn’t run through what it thinks it might get called upon to do during the day.

I only have to make a decision when we reach a corner (Should we turn or cross the street?). I hold on tightly to the leash in case India becomes aware of a chase-able object like a squirrel long before I notice one around, but I don’t fret about anything.

I watch her for cues, whether she wants to pee or sniff something interesting. I’m always prepared to fish something out of her mouth, something she’s found like abandoned pistachio shells, but it’s all part of the adventure. What will we find on our path today?

I love the sounds within the soundlessness of the morning. It’s too early for honking car horns or overhearing cell phone conversations I’d rather not listen to but might be exposed to later in the day.

I’d like to think poetically about walking to my heartbeat, but that’s not exactly the truth.

I hear the sounds of my sandaled feet scuffling along the sidewalk. My footsteps always sound heavy to my ears.

Then I’ll tune into the sound of my furry and fiercely curious companion as her nails, lightly clicking against the sidewalk, announce her movements.

Whether I’m looking at the openness of Wilson Avenue, oddly without cars, or am merely grateful I can cross the tracks without having to wait for a train to pass, I love these moments of morning stillness.

I love looking at India who has already traveled these sidewalks many times and doesn’t seem to grow tired of the walk. I love seeing her face full of curiosity and enthusiasm; full of surprise.

Everything she comes across seems to surprise and delight her. Our lives are full.

Appreciating that moments of morning stillness are full of possibilities, like an orchestra conductor raising his baton before the first note, is no small thing.

Along the 606

congaline edited 2I had a friend back in college. He was a foreign student and though he had mastered at least three languages, he had a special way of mis-forming certain words in English.

Always up for a party, and ever much in the flow, a common question he might pose would be “What’s the PLANIFICATION?”

I thought of him when my friend Nicki called on a recent Friday afternoon. “Do you have any plans for the weekend?” she asked.

I told her that I didn’t but I would email or text with some suggestions for the following night.

If it didn’t look like rain, I thought maybe we could go to Gospel Fest, a free showcase for gospel performances over two days.

The idea sounded good but by the time she came over after a Saturday full of errands and phone calls, we decided it wasn’t worth getting on a train for 45 minutes if we were only going to be able to catch a couple sets.

“It’s a nice evening,” she announced. “Why don’t we just take a walk? I’ve been wanting to check out the 606 for a while.”

The 606 refers to the first 3 digits of Chicago’s postal codes and was a public works project, formerly called the Bloomingdale Trail, for a long time.

The idea was to make an uninterrupted path for walking and cycling along Bloomingdale Avenue just above street level; to create green space on what was abandoned railroad tracks.

There are a dozen access points along the three-mile path.

Stairways and ramps spiral up from street level to the cement and Trex® edged (cushioned) trail. A yellow dividing line, like you’d see in the center of a rural highway, bisects the trail marking eastbound and westbound traffic. But you are pretty much free to find you own lane and pace.

It connects several neighborhoods. As one goes west, you travel from a gentrified neighborhood of hot restaurants and old brownstones that have been renovated to blocks of ramshackle warehouses and alleys where boom boxes, tuned into WOJO or some other Latino music station announce their presence.

It was close to 8:00 in the evening – dusk. And people were out!

Life was happening all around us.

Bikers, joggers, walkers, families, lovers, gaggles of teenage gal pals wearing the strappiest of strappy sandals sporting colorful toenail polish, tattoo marked twenty-somethings in shorts and tanks alongside of logo leisurewear decked out Steppenwolf theatre subscribing urbanites and happy pets and their people – everyone was out!

There was room for everyone. The path was designed to accommodate different purposes. It was made of different surfaces, lined with trees, and dotted with benches and rest areas. Signs announced plans for special performance spaces to go up in some areas.

After walking for some time, we decided to take a break and sit on the benches overlooking Humboldt Park.

There was a festival below. If we sat on the north side of the path, we’d hear the sounds of a DJ spinning rap. On the south side of the path, the sounds of a hot salsa band could be heard.

We decided to sit on the south side. The band featured a smooth throated, balding man whose voice resonated with playfulness or passion depending on the lyrics. A couple horns, a sax, and several percussionists filled out the group. There must have been about 10 musicians.

A woman from a nearby seat spontaneously rose and started to give kids a salsa dance lesson. None of the youngsters held back. All gleefully, and with natural rhythm, shook their booties.

We decided we had to get down to ground level to see the band. We took the ramp down and saw that the festival itself was blocked off to our entry by a large white metal barricade that ran in an oval from just behind north and south stages.

They must be collecting some sort of suggested donation somewhere, we considered.

A open-shirted Mexican man, resting with his bicycle-powered paleteria (ice cream & popsickle cart) saw us in our quandary and moved a section of barricade so we could sneak in and approach the stage and listen to the music.

We joked about it being the first time a Mexican helped middle-aged gringos cross the border into their territory.

After dancing for a while and watching kids of all ethnicities play duck-duck-goose (no words to explain the game is required), we decided to get back on the path.

Now almost dark, we stumbled on a parade preparing to travel the trail. We forgot, but the day was being celebrated as the one-year anniversary of the 606 opening.

Small children carried wands of tiny white lights. Some children wore funny, tall-tiered hats like they were balancing wedding cakes on their heads.

And a half dozen, or so, bicycles were rigged up with lit white screened boxes around their mechanical parts. They were finished off with horns to look like bulls.

The parade was an accidental spectacle, but the small sights and feeling with the flow of life, being able to get on and off the path, made this Saturday night SPECIAL.

Running (or walking would be a better description) with the bulls along the 606 is no small thing.

running with the bulls 2

Wink, Wink

walkens welcomeI’ve seen the poster before –- in the window of a salon in a younger, hipper neighborhood. I wouldn’t have imagined coming across the poster in the glass doorway of The Supreme Beauty Parlor, only feet away from Mary Barrett’s law office and the Manor Dry Cleaners.

The shop was closed when I walked by. The image was unmistakable.

If I peered into the shop, I could see a few shelves featuring hair products the operators of the Supreme must like and empty chairs in front of two sinks. On the entrance was an image of actor Christopher Walken.

The oddball, indie actor is probably most famous for his long-running lothario character featured on Saturday Night Live and for his speech delivered to a young boy about how he carried his killed in combat father’s gold watch up his ass for years during the Viet Nam War so he could gift it to him (from Pulp Fiction).

The allusion of his name on the poster, WALKENS WELCOME, to the common beauty biz slogan, WALK–INS WELCOME, struck me as stupendously funny.

I like the pun itself because I like words and wordplay. I have great associations with the actor. I found it especially funny considering the incongruity of seeing his face at a neighborhood beauty parlor. I certainly don’t associate him with primping and preening.

And I also found myself extra tickled because I don’t know that everyone would have recognized his face.

It’s not like he is Tom Cruise or John Travolta.

You have to be a fan of film, especially a fan of offbeat films, to know him and appreciate the Walken Way.

Oh, I get it…When I first saw the poster, a moment of recognition passed over me.

There’s a perverse pleasure in being able to say that; a singular joy in feeling IN on the joke.

I’d often watch the long-running game show Jeopardy.

I remember once, as the answer was displayed on very low-tech cards; Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, I formulated the question in my head…

What are the moons of Jupiter?

I don’t know why I know this, but this factoid is programmed into me. Knowing this answer is probably worth $800 (in Jeopardy bucks), and I beamed with pride when Alex Trebek confirmed my knowing.

It’s sort of like this, being IN on the joke, or being confident in some knowledge not everyone would have.

Of course, there are things that some people think are way funny that I don’t get. It’s not that I don’t get the joke. I understand what is supposed to be funny. It just doesn’t strike me as funny (like the TV show The Big Bang Theory or movie, Dumb and Dumber).

Sometimes, I’ll say or think something that I think is tremendously funny and not get the reaction I’d anticipate. (I’d remember telling people about the challenging childhood I survived, where even my imaginary friends wouldn’t play with me…This comment was often greeted with blank expressions.)

There’s such a simple pleasure in a funny poster. You might pass it all the time and not really tune into how the image and caption go together. Then — one day, you see it as if for the first time. Everything comes together. It needs no elaboration or build-up.

You either get it, or you don’t…and sometimes, you find yourself smiling and you want your amusement to spread.

When your see a funny poster, your first reaction is to smile. Then, you think of friends to tell, people who you think would share your reaction.

Feeling in on the joke is no small thing.


Under Construction

under constructionNot even two blocks from where I live, I saw a fenced off front yard and banners hung along the wire proclaiming “another great construction job” by XYZ Company.

From above the fence you could see that the roof and guts of the home were totally destroyed, looking oddly like they were surgically removed. It was probably a two-story brick bungalow with a finished basement, hard wood floors and old wood moldings on the main floor.

I’ve been in such homes. They are often deceptive in how much floor space they hold even though they look modest from the street.

There were large wood joists and other building materials just beyond the fence. I imagined new partitioning of rooms was going to take place soon.

There was practically nothing left of the original building. No living room, no dining room. No main floor powder room with depression era floor tile. Just a shell of the home that once stood on this spot.

All that was left standing was the good old brownish Chicago brick holding the white window casements for the bay that was in the living room, small basement windows, and a little white door.

The front door, atop seven small cement steps, faced the street, but was easy to miss as it was tucked away on the west side of the house.

I marveled at the site.

Why would someone tear so much down? So much that was functional or, at least, salvageable? Or another way of looking at it, Why didn’t they tear the whole thing down?

It seems to me that someone would either want to save the charm and character of the original structure…

…Or, if they were just interested in the location, the tree lined street, right along the Brown Line, they’d tear the original structure down entirely.

I contemplated that there must be some zoning rule, or financial advantage to leaving something of the old, maybe only one wall, in place and destroy and re-build everything else to your liking.

And the image of this home, a bungalow in this under construction state, really sunk into my consciousness. It was not anything like the original, nor anything like the home I expect it will be when finished.

I thought about my life as always being under construction. There’s always a Version 2.0 or some new iteration in development; some habit I’m giving up, or some belief that, after timely reflection, can finally morph into something else; a more positive way to look at something.

As new experiences get processed, I can make changes I couldn’t have even contemplated years ago.

And, as I looked at this home, under construction, in the midst of transformation, my eyes settled on the narrow white front door and window casements in the bay.

The house will be built as new, anchored by something that existed before.

Why did the contractor or the homeowners choose these particular elements to build out from? To provide a little continuity with the other houses on the block? Structural integrity?

As I’ve changed and grown over the years, why did I choose to keep some things and let go of others? Do you have your values for life? Is there something about a person that never changes; that makes the person who he is?

My sense of humor, or capacity for empathy, my impulse to try to communicate how I experience things (in writing or by telling stories), my tendency toward the role of mediator (wanting everyone to be happy)… I have to wonder… if I was a building, like this one, under construction, what would be my white front door and window casements.

Keeping that which is essential from your old way of being as you move into the best version of yourself is no small thing.

Dandelion Crowns

Dandelions 2Along with the tulips and crocuses that have popped up in nearby yards, it’s hard to miss the dandelions. (As a new dog-owner, I take four walks a day, and it seems I’ve grown familiar with the location of every garbage can and stretch of lawn within a mile.)

I can’t pass a yard full of them and fail to think about when I was a child. Along with neighborhood friends, we’d pull them up and make chains out of them and then connect the ends, fashioning crowns suitable for a dance around the May Pole.

I remember feeling beautiful in my dandelion crown.

Such a simple thing. Gold and green. The blooms, if you could call them that, irregularly sized. The green stems would get tangled in my hair, and the golden buds would seem to spring out of my brown, wispy locks like small Italian lights hanging over a patio in the summer.

I felt beautiful in my dandelion crown until my mother, or some other adult whose opinion I gave a lot of weight, exclaimed,

Why would your put dandelions in you hair? They’re WEEDS!

I don’t know if it was the words themselves, or the delivery of doubt and distain that changed my attitude about this spring ritual. I stopped wearing dandelion crowns.

Years later, when I was a twenty-something year-old working girl, on Fridays after work, I would meet with a regular crowd of friends at what we referred to as a fern bar.

They had a great Happy Hour featuring half price well drinks and a complimentary buffet table (mostly cheese cubes, crudities, and pasta salads) which served as supper. Afterwards, we would go to a large room in the basement and dance.

Partnered with an outgoing guy, or with one of my gal pals, or even alone, I would dance my heart out. I really got into the music. I was entranced by the flashing lights, being young, being slightly buzzed on cheap gin.

In my movements, I’d be celebrating the idea of Friday night, when, maybe, I felt just a little more carefree than on other nights of the week.

I remember one night, a woman, who saw me unconsciously moving to the beat, came up to me and remarked, as if she was compelled to share this news, that I was SWEATING.

I stopped dancing. I stopped dancing in public.

Oh, I suppose, I might have broken this rule for a slow dance at a wedding reception, but for the most part, I went into shut down.

I was afraid of not looking acceptable when I danced I guess, or overenthusiastic, or that it was too obvious when I got over-heated, or I don’t I know exactly why.

Going into shut down — it still happens on occasion.

Just recently, someone took over a task I was doing. I wasn’t doing it wrong. I reminded myself. The action was more about this person’s need to control things than any particular failing of mine, but I found it difficult to breathe.

I was surprised; incredulous, taken aback. I wondered, How could this person do such a thing? Maybe I felt a little invisible too.

These moments of shut down, occur less and less frequently. I’m glad when I catch myself going into this mode and don’t let myself wander too far down this path.

A friend of mine frequently invokes this principle cited by several self-help gurus. Guilt is about feeling bad over something you did. Shame is about feeling bad about who you are.

I suppose some things just trigger a familiar but unnecessary feeling of shame. I try to remind myself the UNNECESSARY part of this equation. More and more often, I can.

Feeling like a princess in your dandelion crown is no small thing.

The Food Trucks Are Coming!

food trucksJPGThe food trucks are coming! The food trucks are coming!

I can’t imagine Paul Revere uttering those words, and yet I was filled with such excitement upon my first spotting of a food truck on Clark Street, in the heart of the business district, the other week. A sign of a revolution that has been brewing for a some time.

I have long been a fan of Chopped and other shows on the Food Network and have understood the concept behind these restaurants on wheels, but it seemed other areas, like New York and California, embraced them much earlier.

Of course, there are always parking bans and other legalities, which has presented challenges for restaur-preneurs, but this sighting was encouraging.

Food trucks might be mobile mini versions of popular restaurants, but more likely they’re the dream of some foodie that wants to make a living sharing his specialty. Not that a fully equipped drive-able kitchen is cheap, but comparatively, it is an easier way to start in the business than investing in a storefront.

Like new restaurants relying on word of mouth buzz in the past, food trucks are perfectly geared for our mobile, device-oriented society. There are smart phone apps for finding them and they’re easy to hear about from friends’ tweets.

Real time commentary (texts) or cell phone pics enable people to tell their friends about locations where they’re serving or make recommendations on menu items to try.

I didn’t actually see these two southbound trucks on Clark Street transacting business, but, with their sighting, I expected they had spots not too far away.

Food trucks often have a theme. They might feature a different ethnic cuisine (Jamaican or Mexican) or direct from the farm organic ingredients. Because of their limited space, they often have a limited selection of offerings. This is a new approach, or return to an old approach, to eating.

While it’s nice to have some variety, people today would actually prefer seeing a restaurant offer fewer items of what they prepare really well.

As a consumer, if you want variety, you just pick a different parking spot to visit and different menu board to peruse.

I have never actually eaten a meal prepared on a truck (If the grill is not working, does the chef/operator heat things up on the exhaust manifold?), but I like the idea.

Of course, I like the idea of someone literally taking what they do to the streets.

I also like the idea that the routine task of getting food is evolving.

I remember how McDonald’s and drive-through restaurants came of age as I was growing up.

I appreciated how they offered moms an inexpensive alternative to home cooking and family friendly tables where their entire brood didn’t have to behave as if they were at Sunday school.

I can recall how, during my twenties and thirties, ethnic restaurants were all the rage. They offered economical alternatives to home-cooked meals that were built up from much more exotic ingredients. (That a place was BYOB didn’t hurt either.)

Then came carryout options and delivery service, which seemed to suit the lives of busy working adults (during the years I could have categorized myself as one).

Carryout and delivery service grew up in its own niche. Now, many restaurants allow customers to order online or assemble a meal from multiple restaurants through one point of contact.

And now we have food trucks. Freshly prepared, made to order meals can come to your office or park at the edge of a familiar strip mall.

For the most part, I think people want to eat fresh and healthy foods, dishes made by someone that’s proud to serve them.

Whether about how we eat, or in another aspect of our lives, if there is a demand for something, it seems to find a way to be born. And I’m happy about that!

That Harold’s Chicken or The Tamale Spaceship trucks might be parked on a nearby street is no small thing.


Naming Rights

office doorwayI’ve considered getting a dog for some time.

For many years, as a renter, it was out of the question. Well into my fifties, buying a condo in a residential neighborhood became financially do-able and the thought of having a dog came back on my radar.

A special companion. A playmate. A source of unconditional love. These are the promised benefits. I’ve seen many people who wouldn’t seem to be dog people become raving fans.

There’s an allure to taking in a shelter pup and giving a home to an orphan. There’s an unspoken understanding that while you might be giving a pooch a corner on your floor and an unlimited supply of kibbles, the dog is actually giving you something more.

I first read the classic children’s book Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) in high school French class. It’s about a pilot stranded on a desert meeting a little prince who had fallen to earth from an asteroid.

A fox, that provides a very philosophical perspective in the story, makes a remark that says so much about all relationships.

“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

I thought of this story when I decided to get a dog. Some friends cautioned me that I couldn’t date or be as free about social opportunities if I was a dog-owner.

But there are many joys in being responsible to another. It’s easy to think about how your freedom might be limited when you have to be home for an evening walk (toilet break) or make sure special arrangements are made for out of town trips.

But the opportunity to live from the heart, which is the natural byproduct of taking care of the right type of animal, so outweighs the shortcomings of having slightly fewer spontaneous excursions.

And of course with TAMING a pet, making it YOURS because of the care you’re willing to invest in the relationship, comes with naming rights.

I used to have a fantasy that I would adopt a dog and name him Coltrane after jazz great John Coltrane. I liked the name itself. I could use truncated versions Cole or Trane.

I liked the idea that one of Coltrane’s most famous albums was A Love Supreme and that was what I hoped to experience with my pet.

As I was growing up, my family always had a dog. I helped with walks and feeding, but my mother was ultimately responsible. When I think about it, Buster and Dusty were hers.

Recently, a friend introduced me to a dog she was fostering, a spaniel-poodle mix, 1-2 years old; a girl. She thought I might be interested.

Not what I expected (since all the dogs in my family were males). The name Coltrane just didn’t feel right any more. But I liked her personality and knew right away it was worth a shot.

I never had children and I don’t think of a dog as a surrogate a child, but in gearing up for this new experience, I have been feeling anxious like a first-time mother. How I will do on the learning curve?

I imagine I will discover new depths of patience, new ways to set healthy boundaries and will cultivate the ability to understand another’s wants without having to rely on words.

I named her India. Full of heart and energy – and very much a mystery.

Allowing yourself to open your heart and be tamed by the very being you are hoping to TAME is no small thing.


Smelt Fishing in Chicago

smelt in netIt used to be that the smelts were plentiful along the southern tip of Lake Michigan in April.

Families would come in from the ‘burbs (carrying on the tradition they learned from their fathers). Or, Chicago anglers would make use of their nets (stored 11 months of the year) and set up camp.

Smelters will drop their nets from piers or walkways along the lake and bring coolers, finger food and firewood. From quite a distance, I imagine, you can see blazes contained in 50-gallon metal drums at Burnham Harbor or Planetarium Point or other places along the shore.

Our spot is along Montrose Harbor because it has a great nighttime view of Chicago’s skyline.

We used to use park district trash cans to contain our bonfires, but boat owners do not like smelt fishermen (i.e., partiers) to have blazes close to their expensive toys so they took the cans away.

The past few years, Nancy, who spearheads our tradition, brings her own can.

We should bring smelts as well.

For the past ten or more years, our nets have been empty. We’ll catch an occasional alewife (not good to eat), but rarely do we see the little silvery fishes shimmer in our net.

Good thing that we don’t come for the fish.

We come for the fire, for the camaraderie; for the stories, the laughter. We come because it’s a tradition.

Nancy sends out an email at the beginning of the month. We try to pick a Saturday night not during the Easter weekend. Nancy and Jim bring a burner for camping, paper goods, and a dish like chili or pulled pork, and everybody else brings snack foods and wine.

We all bring folding chairs and dress in layers. Some years, it’s pleasant and some years we have to work harder to convince ourselves we’re having fun because it’s so freakin’ cold!

It has to be really bad to declare a rain-out.

Nancy and the other Deb puts the net in before sunset (around 6:00 or 7:00) and we don’t leave until Chicago’s finest donut eaters chase us out of the parking area around 11:00.

Some of the people who come for our annual April get together are best friends and some of us only see each other at Montrose Harbor in April.

We catch up on our respective travels (Susan’s recent trip to Antarctica to check out the penguins was the most surprising story this year), and those of us that have kids share a status update, mainly whether they have a job and a serious sweetie.   Or, we’ll inquire after grandkids.

We compliment each other on the dishes we pass around. (Great beans and deviled eggs this year.) We strike up random conversations with the other faithful. We’ll ask passersby if they’ve caught anything (already knowing the answer) and commiserate about the downward spike of the smelt population in our local waters.

A core group is committed to come out each April and we’re always inviting friends and friends of friends.

We like to tease the smelting virgins, first-timers, about requiring them to bite the head off the first fish netted. (Since we don’t catch anything, this is not as gross as it sounds.)

Maybe some of the faces around the fire can are different, but the feeling is the same every year.

And of course, we sign the BOOK. Nancy brings a journal and whoever shows up that year tries to compose something memorable.

Maybe individual comments highlight extreme weather or odd events (like the year another smelter dressed up in a Chicken Man costume), but mostly we write about being happy to be part of the party; to share each other’s company another April.

Keeping up a tradition (this one is well over 20 years old) is no small thing.




Good News

outlook inboxAn email arrived in my Inbox recently. The subject: A bit of good news.

In a brief paragraph forwarded to my sister and me, my cousin’s girlfriend announced that my cousin William, who suffered a stroke this past summer, was going into the hospital to have his PEG (feeding tube) removed.

Good news, indeed.

The situation surrounding my cousin’s stroke would lend to a compelling mini-series.

He, apparently, just slumped over after coming up from a dive during a scuba diving excursion on the other side of the world. Thanks to trip insurance, he was airlifted to a hospital in Singapore.

Extraordinary right? But in many ways the adventure just began at that point.

His girlfriend, who, in her life, spent little time outside of Long Island, headed to Singapore and practically camped out at the hospital. Over weeks, she had to communicate with medical professionals and make sense of his situation.

She consulted with embassy, insurance, and financial people until she could figure out a way to get him back home. Of course, she sent regular emails to family and friends, interested in the drama that was unfolding, and listened to our well-intended advice.

William lost his ability to speak and had difficulty swallowing. a PEG tube was inserted. He communicated largely through a board where I guess letters could be pointed out. His mobility was minimal.

Mary Ellen reported on his thoughts about things. She was the go-between when we wagered a pizza on whether the Cubs would beat the Mets in the National League championship series. (He won the bet, but couldn’t eat the pizza.)

Like the Prego spaghetti sauce tag line …”It’s in there….” I had the understanding that William was still IN the body that we thought of as his, but that he couldn’t interact with his family or function in the world as he had done previously.

He was still WILLIAM.

Amazingly, he kept up his spirits well enough as he went through the hard work of learning how to do simple things (or things most of us think of as simple). Patience was never one of his virtues and this alone is incredible.

He was also bent on finding a way to still be of use, to have a positive impact in the world — even if he couldn’t drive or carry groceries. Last month, I received an email from Mary Ellen that he has been seeing a few patients again. (Mid-life, he became a psychotherapist.)

Mary Ellen’s devotion and understanding have been immeasurable. After arranging the medical escort to deliver him to New York, she had to arrange care for him at a series of hospitals and centers then focused on bringing him home and supervising his rehab herself.

She reported on his various institutional moves, but the updates became less frequent. Maybe I didn’t think I could do much for either of them, being 800 miles away. My queries slowed down too.

I’m so happy for my cousin, at reaching this milestone, and so grateful for the unwavering devotion and sacrifice of his partner.

I’m also piqued by the general rarity of announcing or sharing GOOD NEWS.

We are constantly bombarded by news of tragedies or world events that could be spun into anxiety to the umpteenth power, but our lives actually revolve around the little things that foster encouragement or disappointment.

It’s in sitting around the dinner table (or checking an Inbox) and learning about a child’s A on a test or friend’s decision to go back to school or the availability of purple potatoes at the local farmer’s market that we decide how we want to live our daily lives and be in the world.

A bit of good news is no small thing.


elevator doors at country buildingI’ve hosted visitors these past two weekends. First, an old friend, who lives in New York, came in then my best friend, who currently lives just north of San Francisco, made my Albany Park flat her home base for five days.

I enjoyed seeing them although taking on extra responsibilities when hosting a guest can be tiring.

I’ll make sure to have fresh linens on the sofa bed in the guest room and fresh towels in the guest bathroom. I’ll make a home cooked meal on the day a visitor arrives. I’ll look for theatre tickets or research restaurants I think they’d enjoy.

I bought Coke for my New York friend because I know she loves the stuff. I would not normally have Coke, or any type of soda pop, in my house.

Following each departure, I cleaned the guest bathroom, laundered the sheets for my next guest and combed the place for anything they might have forgotten that they might like to be re-united with.

When my last walk-through was completed, an odd sense of satisfaction came over me.

I thought they enjoyed their visits. More importantly, I felt DONE; complete about the out of the ordinary activities I took on in preparation for their visits and for returning my solo lifestyle.

During the time leading up to their visits, I was also working on completing tasks involved in filing my tax returns for 2015.

Unfortunately, although I started on this project weeks ago, being that it is not as much fun as hosting friends, and being that I needed some professional assistance, declaring I was DONE was not as easy.

I dropped off earnings documents to my accountant and emailed a spreadsheet of expenses, contributions and records of various transactions a while ago. His initial estimate of what I owed shocked me.

For years, I’ve been filing as an independent contractor and I’ve come to look at quarterly estimates as best guesses, so owing something didn’t surprise me, but the amount did.

Luckily, I was able to consult with family members who are pretty savvy and other financial advisers and was able to reduce the amount I owed. I set up a new retirement account and learned that I was not applying all my allowable expenses.

I got quite an education on things that affected my taxes. While not DONE with my education on this, I expanded my understanding of how things worked.

Before I affixed Ray Charles tribute stamps (I can’t just use American flag featured FOREVER postage) on four separate envelopes (to the US Treasury, the state of Illinois, for an amended 1040 form for 2014, and for sending a check to my accountant), I realized that DONE was more about reaching a milestone in my financial education than about getting the damn envelopes in the mail.

In the course of looking through my tax document folder, in which I usually just place documents as they arrive during the first few months of the year, I found a form for my homeowner’s exemption, which I should have filed months ago.

When I discovered it, I immediately went downtown to the Cook County Assessor’s office and handled registering.

Remembering the decorative brass elevator doors anchored in the Bottocini marble walls of this beautiful old building became my image for completing each step along the way. I remember the doors as closed with little lamps to each side.

That the doors were closed, for me, means DONE, and yet, not entirely DONE. The nearby blue lights are important as well.

Remembering that nothing is DONE until you learn something from the experience is no small thing.

Coming Soon

coffe shop coming soonI don’t even drink coffee, but I did a double take when I walked past the white paper sign on the nearby storefront door the other day

Coming soon!

As if the exclamation point shaved off a few days from their build-out schedule and added reasons for excitement.

A local bru haus (they don’t just call them cafés anymore) was going to be opening in my neighborhood.

The smaller print declared that the beans themselves were going to be roasted in my very zip code (as if preparing beans in Chicago’s Albany Park stood for superior flavor and was a great selling point).

Along a major avenue and bus route and only blocks away from a commuter train station, the hope would be that they would grow a loyal following.

Of course, they would be set up for WIFI and would probably sell a limited selection of pastries. Maybe their sweets would come from their own ovens. Or, more likely, they’d come from another small business.

Baked with the best organic ingredients that could be found, their blondies or cinnamon crumble topped cakes would be products of someone else’s entrepreneurial dream.

I couldn’t see beyond the brown kraft paper covering the insides of the windows facing the street, but my imagination started filling in the details of what the place might look like.

The place would be some shade of yellow, like having caffeinated walls. I’d expect them to have funky, brightly painted wooden chairs. I fondly remembered Urbus Orbus, back in the day, when I was in my twenties and drank coffee.

I’d hang out there with my friend Lin for hours, sipping Arabica and playing board games, which were stashed away on a small bookcase that was probably pulled from a nearby alley before scavengers (i.e. garbage-pickers) made a last round.

We’d play Scrabble or Clue (okay, the set was missing a few pieces). We’d drink from endless over-sized ceramic cups Wabi Sabi style. Somehow the crockery was extra endearing because they were irregular or imperfect.

Today’s typical bru haus or café patrons probably have all the games they could think of on their smart phone apps. And paper GO cups might be their standard for serving up their special blend. Still, I was excited…

  • About something new coming to my neighborhood.
  • About having a place to meet someone at short notice nearby without feeling compelled to make my bed or clean my bathroom.
  • About the possibility of community forming around the place, or at least spawning an ensemble of regulars that might hang out there as if occupying a second home.

I think I’m excited at the prospects of someone hanging out their shingle and furnishing a new storefront — to make a place ready for business. It represents a lot of hard work. More importantly, it tells me that someone has taken a key step in making their dream REAL.

It’s great to see someone making tangible something that started out as an idea in their head.

I wish that for myself. I take inspiration from all range of transformations, of great and small reveals. A new small business owner might cover the windows while a fresh purpose and identity is being formed on the inside.

All number of unforeseen events and complications might delay the grand opening.

Still, seeing a COMING SOON! sign is no small thing.


Along the Brown Line

child sleeping on elIf I go downtown, I almost always take the Brown Line home. Rushing off to a meeting or a theatre might involve switching over to the subway, which is faster, but in coming home, I want to slow things down, especially my mind.

I like to take the Brown Line home because everything moves slower. There are more stops, more neighborhoods to pass through. More to look at.

I love looking out the window as the train crosses the north branch of the Chicago River. Houses along the river have their own docks and beautiful gardens. It’s easy to forget that I’m in the city.

I also love looking inside. At the people riding with me.

One day last week, I was returning home from the Loop on the train. I was in a foul mood.

Things didn’t work out around a planned lunch date, and I just got an email from my accountant that I might owe the IRS a totally unexpected sum of money. I needed to respond a proposal and didn’t know what I wanted to say. Blah-blah-blah.

I watched as commuters hunted up seats and anchored their ear buds in place or ran their index fingers across the face of their smart phones. I fought my habitual annoyance at seeing young, fit riders failing to offer their seats to older commuters or people who might not handle 25 minutes of standing with the same ease.

I observed the train car filling up — with backpack toting students, veteran shoppers, navy suited job seekers. Then it exhaled them in little bursts as we headed towards Kimball Avenue. Like a polite reaction to a joke everyone’s heard before. Ha-ha-ha The interior of the car became less dense.

The train car seemed much lighter after Montrose, and I caught sight of a small boy, maybe six or so, asleep on his mother’s lap only a few feet in front of me.

The sight made me smile. I thought that nothing could shake me out of the cycle of my mental chatter, from my decision to be displeased or worried. But seeing this child, unnamed to me, asleep in his mother arms, made me happy.

He was tired. He fell asleep. He felt safe because he knew his mother wouldn’t let him fall. He didn’t worry about getting off the train at the right time. It was that simple.

He wore his innocence like his jacket and scarf. Ever so close but without forethought or plans as if he forgot his body filled them. Seeing his blissful face in dreamland (or not) made me think about going home in a different sense.

I might take the Brown Line when heading home from downtown. I might step a little quicker in anticipation as I turn down my alley and go up my back stairs, but returning home is not about an address or where I check my mail.

The T.S. Eliot line from the Four Quartets came to mind.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time…

I recognize that my foray into the city is not of major consequence in my soul’s journey.

Still, seeing the innocent sleep of this child reminded me that coming home is about returning to a place where I trust I will be safe, where I trust what I need will be in supply; a place that has nothing to do with striving.

A place to just BE….

And even though I spend enough time there, returning home after activities in the world, it is fresh and welcoming.

Looking out the window of a Brown Line train then looking in and witnessing trust and innocence in another passenger is no small thing.

And Nobody Died

bagpipersNew Year’s Eve is often referred to as Amateur Night. Most people that go out for libations and entertainment regularly prefer a nice steak dinner and a night of catching up on their Netflix queue at home to temporarily jacked up restaurant prices and driving on city streets with inexperienced revelers.

I feel pretty similarly about going out on Saint Paddy’s Day. Besides seeing too many people wearing awful shades of green (a color which only looks good on a very small percentage of the population), everyone seems to over-indulge.

Many pub patrons act as if on a mission to consume as much beer, corned beef, and Irish soda bread as possible. It only makes sense that, along with the day after the Super Bowl, March 18th is practically a national holiday for calling in sick from work.

Though not a red-letter day on my calendar, I agreed to join a few friends at a nearby Irish pub for an evening of music, a traditional buffet, and a pint o’ Harps.

I vowed I would enjoy the spirit of the evening as long as no one sang “Oh Danny Boy.” (I’m sorry, but that just too damn hokey Irish for me.)

The highlight of the evening was the bagpipe troop. At 9:30, the Emerald Society Pipe Band toured the bar; playing a couple numbers in the two dining rooms then an extended set in the behemoth tent which was set up for the holiday to accommodate over 300 at tables and chairs.

They challenged us tent-dwellers to sing along as they squeezed out America the Beautiful then went into a very traditional rendition of Amazing Grace.

Enjoying the rare opportunity to hear kilted musicians play this classic outside of a funeral for a Chicago cop or firefighter who lost their life on the job, I felt compelled to announce, “Well, at least nobody died.”

I understood that my friends weren’t privy to the internal set-up for this comment, but they got it well enough and we all laughed.

It made me think about my penchant for making jokes in the moment. Not that I’m insensitive to people or situations, but I like to make jokes.

Many years ago, a friend once described this habit as a defense mechanism Obviously, she didn’t relish, as I do, the ability to lighten things up. Sometimes, it seems, lightening up starts by going to a dark place.

At the end of 2014, I drove into the side of an apartment building — in the middle of the day, only a couple hundred feet from where I lived. Did the floor mat interfere with my left foot’s path to the brake pedal? Was I going too fast crossing train tracks before I had to make a sharp left turn into my alley? I don’t know.

Friends that wanted a neat and tidy explanation for the accident asked me what happened. In a serious tone, I replied, “I tried to MOVE the building, but I couldn’t.”

I found great perspective from bringing humor to this difficult circumstance.

Years ago, I remember trying to assuage a friend’s feelings while simultaneously thinking he was working himself up unnecessarily.

I told him, “I’m not laughing AT you. I’m laughing WITH you.” Pointing to a spot some distance away, I added, “but from over there.”

I don’t know where some of my quips or rejoinders come from, but I am so glad my observations of life come with captions that make me laugh. My humor has helped me get through many challenges.

Milan Kundera, the famous Czech author, wrote a book titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I actually think it would be unbearable BEING if you couldn’t infuse your days with some LIGHTNESS and LAUGHTER.

Learning to bring lightness into your life is no small thing.



Roll With It

casters on office chairEven though I pay taxes all year long (at restaurants and stores, in quarterly estimates and biannual property taxes), I don’t think much about them until the end of February, beginning of March.

Taxes are embedded in all sorts of transactions and, like a journalist’s ride-along in a tank in Tashkent not getting attention until it’s featured on 60 Minutes, taxes are not much of a personal concern — that is, until they become everyone’s concern.

Okay, so April 15th is imprinted in our minds as a day of reckoning. Not in a spiritual sense, for whether good deeds outweigh selfish actions, but whether we’re following our country’s rules for community living – or following them well enough.

My finances are not so complicated that I could probably learn to file myself, but the prospects that my calculations need to MATCH the government’s so stresses me out that I’m happy paying a good accountant to review things.

Barely after holiday decorations are returned to storage, my tax files take a prominent place in my office. Colorfully labeled manila folders start collecting income forms that come in the mail. I’ll look at printouts of charitable contributions I made online to make sure the cause qualifies as a 501 C.

Then I’ll review different paper records and set up an Excel spreadsheet with categories of expenses and miscellaneous sources of income.

I try to break the process into small steps. I also want to leave my accountant plenty of time for his review.

This past Saturday, after finishing a deadline project, I decided I could procrastinate no longer. I checked my labeled folders and confirmed I shouldn’t be receiving any more 1099s or interest summaries.

I took out credit card statements for the past year to make sure I was accounting for any business related expense I was entitled.

The intensity of staring at a small glowing screen on my desk is something I’m used to, although my tolerance for it varies. After about 40 minutes, with the heels of my hands, I pushed myself away from my desk.

Although all my weight was completely centered on the seat of my chair, on casters, the motion of pushing myself away from my desk was easy. I found myself surprisingly ebullient over this sensation, this discovery.

While not nearly the level of fire or electricity, the idea of putting casters on the bottoms of chairs struck me as pretty cool.

What a difference there is between pushing and rolling!

At the physical level, it’s so nice to use wheels or levers or tools for rendering a heavy object maneuverable. On the energetic level…

Rolling with something rather that pushing through it is a great thing to practice.

There will always be some life situations that just purely need to be gotten through, but rolling with challenges rather than pushing through them seems like a better strategy.

It seems worthwhile to remind myself that giving myself breaks in all varieties of tasks, rolling with my feelings, rather than pushing through them, may be best for me.

Remembering that, like taking advantage of the mobility of chairs on casters, I can exercise more choices than I might limit myself to is no small thing.


Buttered Side Up

buttered side up 2You’ve probably experienced this.

You’ve gotten a late start on your day and you just want to shovel down some food so your vitamins don’t eat away your stomach lining or because you know you won’t have a break until lunchtime and you just don’t want to run out of gas.

….And in your state, you push your toast (or bagel) over the edge of your counter. Small miracle. It lands buttered side up (or cream cheese side UP).

You pick it up, unenthusiastically blow at the bottom (remembering the last time you swept the floor) and continue with your morning routine.

Isn’t it amazing how often things land buttered side up?

Now, I’m not one to promote a Pollyanna-ish attitude of gratitude. I don’t believe in acknowledging a blessing you are supposed to feel according to someone else’s standards.

I absolutely hate it when someone tries to cheer you up by pointing out that you SHOULD feel grateful because you have it so much better than an orphaned leper working in a sweatshop in Haiti.

Like the old quip about a restaurant patron, after bemoaning that his meal was tough and tasteless, adding the complaint “and they serve such small portions, too…”

Some people don’t seem to see the wonder in WHAT IS!

I think it’s worth recognizing that while some things don’t turn out the way you might have wanted, so many things work out, or work out well enough.

There are so many things already present in life worthy of appreciation.

A friend of mine once sent me a cartoon. It depicted a lingerie-clad woman, significantly past the blush of youth, lounging on a divan sipping a glass of champagne.   The caption:

I’ve been lucky in love! None of my bad relationships worked out!

I try to take time occasionally to give a shout out to things that have gone OKAY. (And OKAY is GOOD).

  • Just the other day, I found my car key in the most unlikely of places – on the bathroom vanity (must have been in a hurry to pee when I got home from an errand).
  • I had the right hardware in my seldom-used toolbox when I finally decided to hang my framed mandala over my mantel.
  • My cellphone didn’t run out of juice when I needed it even though I forgot to charge it the night before.
  • Last week, I watched happily when a drop of salad dressing missed my shirt and fell onto the napkin covering my lap.
  • I went out to dinner with my gal pals recently and we all had exact cash for our portion of the tab!

Not dramatic perhaps, but worth noticing.

It’s also worth considering that ENOUGH or ACCEPTABLE is OKAY.

Not that we wouldn’t welcome standout moments, but it’s too easy to forget how so many things in our lives are working.

Appreciating the ADEQUATE is no small thing.


The Envelope, Please

oscar night 2Like many folks across America, I attended an Oscar party last night.

The venue was the downstairs den of a good friend that houses a 7’ x 11’ projection system (that’s right, the screen has to be measured in feet!), a comfy couch, super-sized ottoman, and regulation sized dining table for grazing food and makeshift bar.

As a group, we pretty much concluded that Chris Rock was the big winner, the best host in years, and Cate Blanchett was the big loser for her gown selection. We decided it made her look like she survived an explosion of a box of blue Kleenex.

Although, I saw many of this year’s nominated films, I don’t watch the awards broadcast every year. I didn’t have a favorite, and I wasn’t in any sort of pool for picking the winners.

But there is something about the event that I do love.

There are usually some surprises. I loved the bit about Chris Rock supposedly helping his daughters win this year’s Girl Scout troop’s contest by pitching Harvey Weinstein and John Legend et al to buy a few boxes of Thin Mints.

And, of course, I love the acceptance speeches, which are basically Thank You Letters.

Where else can you see so much gratitude on display packed in between three plus hours of spectacle (including commercials)?

A lot was made about this year’s award ceremony needing to be re-named The White Oscars because of the absence of African Americans as nominees in key categories.

I thought it was great that the discussion was brought to more people’s attention, but this was not a new issue or even a new platform for airing something controversial.

I remember Apache spokesperson Sacheen Littlefeather speaking for Marlon Brando when he won an Oscar for his performance as Don Corleone in the original Godfather back in 1973. Politely, she explained that Mr. Brando couldn’t accept the award as long Native Americans were depicted so poorly in film and television.

Besides diversity, the 88th Academy Awards brought attention to global warming (in Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech on the importance of preserving the natural world). The personal and cultural consequences of rape was showcased in Vice President Biden’s short speech and Lady Gaga’s powerful singing of Til it Happens to You.

I actually like that such political and cultural issues can seep into any event that provides such a wide audience.

No matter which cinematographer, screenwriter or starlet takes home prizes, to me the night will always be about gratitude and the recognition of support and inspiration. Whether someone uses their moments onstage to bow to parents, spouses, mentors or collaborators, in their acceptance speeches, these honored artists express heartfelt gratitude.

I normally think of gratitude as a quiet emotion, as an understated kind of love for WHAT IS, but I really enjoy seeing a difference face of appreciation sometimes.

It’s hard to forget Roberto Benigni’s acceptance speech for Life is Beautiful as Best Foreign Film in 1999. Directly to the audience he said, “I leave here with the Oscar, but I want YOU! I want to be rocked by the waves of your beauty…I want to kiss everybody because you’re the image of this joy…”

Recognizing gratitude in exuberance as well as in reflection is no small thing.




It’s That Time

car_washI know that Punxsutawney Phil (alias The Groundhog) did not see his shadow on the 2nd of the month. This is generally a good omen for an early spring.

When I walk home from the nearest train stop after a day downtown, and I notice that it’s still LIGHT – I mean after 5:00 – I’m positively elated.

I’ve also been very aware of the phenomenon — maybe it’s a Midwestern thing — that after wearing soot and snow for several months, people start caring about washing their cars again.

Sometimes their cars even seem to announce that they’re ready for a good scrubbing.

At this time of year, I’ll see “W-A-S-H   M-E” scrawled out on windshields or fenders.  And once these words have been spelled out with freshly smudged fingers or gloves, car owners usually follow up with action.

All these things remind me that spring is just around the corner. And I’m probably not alone here, but spring makes me feel hopeful.

Yes, I know there will likely be some more snow. And I’m under no illusion that I should take all my nice sweaters to the dry cleaner and bag them up until next winter, but I look forward to these little signs. I like to think I’m moving into a period of possibilities.

Come on, the Cubbies and White Sox position players are reporting to SPRING TRAINING this week.

My niece is texting me about coming home for SPRING BREAK soon. I’m sure it will cost me, but I’ll gladly pop for Korean barbecue, which she loves, and the chance to commiserate about the lack of date-able guys. (Now forty years apart, who’d think we would have this in common?)

I’m starting to think about yard sales or friends who are giving away planters and things I can put on my deck.

While I don’t normally follow college basketball, I’ll find myself listening to sports radio hosts pontificate about brackets for the impending March Madness.

I’ll step up my feelers about spring holiday plans and try to get myself invited to a seder.

I’ll find myself slowing down as I walk through the aisles of Sauvignon Blancs and Viognoiers at my favorite liquor store. Winter is for Cabs and Malbecs and Multipulcianos. I only seem to think of spring and summer for drinking white wines.

I’ll find myself looking for reasons to be outside. If I need to slip a Netflix envelope into the mailbox, my attitude is different than it was only a few weeks ago. I’m happy just to walk to a mailbox NOW.

And my downstairs neighbor doesn’t have to worry any more about me going deaf. I no longer have to crank up the volume on my TV so it can be heard over the sound of my furnace when the thermostat triggers it to kick in.

I know that we’re still weeks away from seeing irises and crocuses and other early spring blooms pop out along the front lawns in my neighborhood. It might be two months before I start buying produce at farmers’ markets.

But my heart tells me I can really believe that spring is coming.

Even the tiniest, most fickle or most personal sign of spring is no small thing.


Solo Act

fillet of soloOn the recommendation of an actress friend, I attended Squeeze My Cans at the Fillet of Solo Festival over a recent weekend. As the festival name implies, it was a one-woman show. It was staged with minimal props and optimal heart and energy.

The solo piece recounts how Cathy Schenkelberg, a voice-over actress, got into Scientology and – eventually — got out.

I remember Spalding Gray’s late ‘80s tour de force movie monologue, Swimming to Cambodia. It’s hard to believe a single voice could so completely capture your attention for over an hour, but, like his account of working on the film, The Killing Fields, Schenkelberg’s personal narrative more than held my attention for its 87 minute run time.

I considered that such a contract, willingly listening to a stranger talk about their life, without interruption, for an extended period, requires some type of hook.

To say that I’ve never imagined a life within a cult such as Scientology would be an understatement. Though I’d usually be quick to dismiss flirtations with any community that promised empowerment as it drained your checking account – DRAINED you in so many ways — I was surprised by how much sympathy I felt for her twenty-something year old self when she first opted in.

She was a creative struggling to forge a career in very competitive world. I could understand the appeal of belonging to a tribe that gave her access to certain opportunities and even forced her to reflect on her life, something that wasn’t part of her early psychic diet.

I’m sure she couldn’t write or tell others about her experience until there was some time and distance between the threat of other members filing knowledge reports on her and her carefully choreographed getaway.

Crystallizing the insights and ironies from a period of your life into a work of art that could touch others is worthwhile. Speaking these words out loud is downright noble. I found myself laughing and crying with her.

And it made me think about my own hero’s journey.

Doesn’t everyone face the same challenge? How can you survive as YOURSELF, as the person you know yourself to be, amid ill-suited jobs or disappointing love affairs or non-supportive families or …(fill in the blank).

So while Cathy marched up and down the small stage and tiers of seats in the black box theatre, I knew she had a lighting person and sound person and house manager to make sure some things didn’t derail. I knew she had the critical eye and support of a very engaged director and friends who wanted to see her perform her story.

I also know that performing Squeeze My Cans was something she did – and had to do – alone.

Towards the end of the piece, she mentioned how important it was to forgive herself for making decisions that gave her such an experience.

I know that struggle only too well, embracing every aspect of your life, when you’d prefer things were easier.

I felt very uplifted and grateful to be in her audience, to stand up at the end and applaud. I appreciated the ALL of it; her story, her telling of it, the message of self-forgiveness. The courage we put into our own stories.

Remembering that we’re all doing a solo act – together – is no small thing.


Turn, Turn, Turn

new sleeping configurationI told the doctor I was overtired, anxiety ridden, compulsively active, constantly depressed, with recurring fits of paranoia. Turns out I’m normal – Jules Feiffer

This is one of the quotes included in the I Can’t Sleep journal a friend gave me.

If the problem hadn’t become so common, and the affects of not sleeping (or not sleeping enough) hadn’t so curtailed my energy, or even the enjoyment I derived from my daily life, the sentiment would probably get a bigger chuckle.

I have read related statistics. I know I am not alone. Most adults are sleep deprived. I’ve been told that most women my age (whatever that means) should expect needing to make do with fewer hours of shut-eye than they used to get when they were thirty-somethings.

I’ve tried pharmaceuticals, Chinese herbs, melatonin, hormones, yoga positions, salt baths, supposed sleep-inducing teas, spraying my room with lavender, and sworn tips offered my friends and wellness experts.

Some things have worked, or worked to some extent, for a period of time. I’m conscious of when my mind might be churning with a thought that I can’t seem to let go. I know this happens occasionally but obsessive thinking only accounts for a fraction of my sleepless nights.

I have experienced stretches of time that I would have no problem, and I couldn’t tell you what was different in my life between one week and the next.

Probably many wouldn’t believe in such things, but I’ve worked successfully with an energetic healer. By helping me dissipate the charges of past traumas, at times, I found a secret narrow corridor to the grand ballroom of dreams.

When my most recent strategy no longer worked, we conferred.

“Turn your bed around,” she said. “Sleep the other way.”

She had theories about magnetic fields and alignments. I didn’t mean to dash her suggestion, but I felt compelled to explain that I couldn’t try this.

“I can’t move my bed to the other side of the room or re-arrange my furniture,” I went on. “I can’t put my bed on the opposite wall because I can’t cover the door to the bathroom -– or to my closet. I can’t put my bed along the side walls because there’d be no room for the dresser.”

“So leave your bed where it is and sleep the other way,” she said. “Place your head towards your bathroom and south wall and your feet towards the north wall.”

I did and damn if I didn’t have one of the best nights of sleep I could remember having in recent years. For the past few nights, I’ve found restful sleep by placing my pillow (and head) where my feet used to snuggle under my comforter.

OMG the world seemed to change for me.

I contemplated the importance of finding right alignment with the earth and took pleasure in considering how I had become a tourist in my own bedroom. From a small change, everything looked different.

And that was good.

Instead of behind me, hanging over my bed, when I woke up during the night, I saw a favorite piece of framed art at my feet. While unable to make out the image, its glass covering looked like a shimmering reflecting pool with my room lit only by the red display of my clock radio on my night table; now, also at my feet.

Instead of tossing and turning between the sheets, I turned 180 degrees and everything became still.

Being able to change your orientation or look at anything – the other way – is no small thing.

Circle Game

Hall Bigger Circle of ChairsOne Sunday a month, after regular programming and brunch, my study group meets at our meditation center. We discuss teachings from the masters of our spiritual path as they apply to the experiences of our lives.

Whether all nine of us show up on any fourth Sunday, or if only six of us decide to share the 90 minutes, the discussion is perfect. Sometimes our contemplations and personal narratives are largely for unburdening. Sometimes they’re illuminating. They’re always humanizing.

We arrange our chairs in a circle.

Now, I hate many types of circles. Directing street traffic with roundabouts or rotaries instead of with traffic lights makes me want to scream. I go crazy listening to a circular argument when so much of a case leading to a conclusion is based on an assumption.

But there’s something so wonderful about adults sitting in a circle to talk; to speak their minds…. and hearts.

Maybe King Arthur had this in mind when he created the round table – that everyone who sits in a circle understands that they are all equals. There is a democratizing effect of being in a group of people when you can look everyone in the eyes.

Even if one person leads the discussion, everyone feels free, even encouraged, to speak.

Circles create a sort of intimacy. You can see how people feel by their expressions and the way they hold their bodies. They can see you in the same way.

Circles foster a natural orientation towards reciprocity and trust.

People listen to others in their circle because they recognize everyone else as being like them. They listen because they want to be heard.

Sitting in a circle evokes trust. Like the saying What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… you don’t really have to remind each other that what is shared in the group doesn’t become topics of conversation or gossip elsewhere. It’s understood.

And this past Sunday, after I folded my page of next month’s study questions into my book, I felt content. I recognized that I like BELONGING to the fourth Sunday study group.

Sometimes I like to think about the world as a 3-D version of a circle. We’re all just sitting across from each other. We’re never opposite each other.

Thinking of ourselves within our small circles leads to knowing how we fit into a BIGGER CIRCLE, and that’s no small thing.



strawberry chocoateBrrr. It was cold this past weekend.

Dress in layers — I remembered the commonly dispensed advice.

There probably is some law of thermodynamics that explains why this tactic works, but it does. I’ll feel warmer if I wear a hoodie over a long sleeved tee over a knit shirt than if I just donned a bulky sweater.

After thinking about covering up in garments to keep warm, like second or third skins, my mind automatically started to ruminate on the concept of LAYERS.

Clouds occupy different altitudes in the atmosphere. I love the final minutes of a plane trip when I might look out the window and notice that the white tufts I was skimming across just minutes ago are now over me and that I’m about to lose visibility again as we continue our descent.

The earth is made up of layers. To a lesser extent, the dirt we put in planters simulates this. Under topsoil, there’s often gravel or clay. Under which, there’s some type of rock. Each strata can be divided into sub-strata.

Insulation and tires and electric cords are all composed of layers. Each layer is chosen for unique qualities; each material satisfying a specific purpose.

And of course, there are countless foods and confections that are layered. Who hasn’t perused the snack table at a party and wondered where did all the guacamole go on the 7-layer taco dip?

Candy often is comprised of a hard shell on the outside, nuts or coconut flakes as you bite down and a soft, sweet surprise at the core.

And who doesn’t love layer cakes? A chance to put several of your favorite tastes and textures in a single slice?

But I found myself also thinking about healingin layers.

Maybe it was unavoidable that I should begin my year with a workshop that included some reference to goals. Although I vowed to give attention to desired directions and not to measurable outcomes, I found myself struggling with a class exercise where we were to define past and future ceilings.

I can readily acknowledge that I’ve passed through many barriers in my life, but I experienced such a total shutdown. I found myself unable to imagine how things would look and feel if I held different beliefs about certain things.

As the other participants in the workshop came up with new numbers for things they envisioned accomplishing and practiced their happy dance, I felt like I was going backwards.

I couldn’t tell myself YES to some ideal I didn’t feel in my body. I knew what was stopping me. I kept thinking, Oh no, not this AGAIN.

And a sort of emptiness and odd hopefulness has been with me ever since. I guess that’s the nature of healing yourself.

You can’t expect to make everything right all at once. (Even when you know what is WRONG.) As time passes, you can see some things you couldn’t see before. You learn how to forgive in ways you couldn’t conceive of before.

Frustrated that I couldn’t move on to the next chapter of my life right away, I was glad to remember this.

Like a delicate, but rich torte, I just need to go through more layers in order to get to the buttercream and chocolate covered strawberries on the top.

Allowing yourself to work through layers of hurt when you’re ready is no small thing.

Happy Underwear!

panties display at carsonsYears ago, a popular brand of children’s underwear had an advertising campaign where young children and toddlers paraded around in their underwear. To the tune of Happy Birthday, a studio chorus sang Happy Underwear to you…

Their expressions were positively joyful.

I have thought about this commercial a lot during the first days of 2016. When discussing goals for the year with a friend, he volunteered plans to re-stock his collection of briefs with some new pieces (probably too much information considering our relationship).

When I spoke on the phone with a friend who had lived in China for many years, I told her that I was expecting a good year because on February 8th, we will be entering the Year of the Monkey, my birth sign according to the Chinese Zodiac.

She told me a little about the tradition of benming nian. In the beginning of your birth year (which comes around every 12 years), instead of automatically welcoming good fortune, one has to be on guard and take actions to avoid ill fates.

So, if it’s your year, it is customary to wear red, which represents good fortune. A common sight, she recalled, was seeing red underwear hanging out to dry. (Wearing red underwear, as opposed to red scarves or outerwear, was developed as a strategy for attracting good fortune while not revealing one’s age.)

Although not especially superstitious, I liked the idea of buying myself something new with the intention of ushering success and happiness into my life.

During lean years, I remember thinking of buying a new pair or two of panties as a way to tell myself that I deserved good things. Not a big expenditure, it was still a way to send a little message to my subconscious mind that I didn’t have to be miserly with myself.

Charged with the mission of finding red underwear, I went to a department store in a nearby mall and marched towards the Intimate department. Not only did I want to make sure I was generous with myself, I wanted to feel LUCKY.

I usually exercise style preferences based on what feels comfortable, but I never gave much thought to COLOR.

What a wonderland! The store had more choices than I imagined, or at least more than I ever paid attention to.

I skipped bins of bikinis and thongs (butt floss) and looked at rainbows of colored panties worn by mini mannequins and displayed on hangers.

Along with different shades of red, I saw pinstriped panties (as if they should be worn by bankers) and leopard-spotted and tiger-striped pairs suitable for anyone wishing to get in touch with their inner animal.

What a hoot! I ended up buying a couple red pair and a few high-cut briefs of other colors.

It felt good to start the year with something new, even something inexpensive and common. I reveled in having so many choices. And I liked the thought of wearing red in secret – my secret magnet for drawing good fortune to me.

Starting the year with something new – something that is just for you – is no small thing.


Your Greatest Work of Art

dessert artistry-apacho.croppedAs the curtain dropped on 2015 and rose on 2016, I felt compelled to reflect on the highlights of the previous year and explore my heart’s desire for the new year.

The two standouts from last year were making time to hear live music regularly and my trip to Argentina.

Yes, I’m a fan of how a live musical performance has the power to put you in the moment. I also have a special appreciation for how developing tourist eyes make you take a fresh look at things.

These two things also invite you to find inspiration in the lives of others.

When traveling through Argentina, I was really struck by the artistry incorporated by so many people in the course of their everyday lives.

While in Buenos Aires, we took a lengthy crosstown bus ride from Recoleta (an area full of tony stores and hotels) to a funkier neighborhood to visit a soup kitchen.

The woman who founded the enterprise many years ago provides an evening meal to 250 people on most days – all without government funding or grants. She discovered ways to get food donations, find volunteers, and manage to maintain her own family life.

In La Consulta, in the western part of Argentina, we were served breakfast by Rosa. After raising her children and teaching dance in the small studio behind her house, she opened her home to travelers, feeding them homemade biscuits and marmalades. She has made a successful business from what she was drawn to do.

In San Telmo, near the Sunday Market on Defensa Street, I met Gladys Mabel Blanco, an incredible photographer. I bought several prints of bandoneons from her (a local version of accordion).

She might have a day job that supports her, but there’s no doubt that she thinks of herself as an artist. Her week’s not complete unless she packs up her matted prints and shows them under a white tarp in a public square on Sunday.

And, I sampled Diego Ponce’s artistry in many ways. A chef with a vision, he opened Apapacho (which roughly translates as “hug”), a restaurant and bar just outside the city of Mendoza.

The group I was traveling with enjoyed an incredible lunch there (topped off with a shot glass of mojito ice cream) and participated in a cooking class where we were taught the basics of empanada making.

We found out later that Diego caters for some of the nearby wineries, for tastings and events. He also helped develop the concept and menu for Cachita’s, a bar and eatery in Mendoza City.

All these people can serve as inspiration for me now.

I want to write (and I want to find an audience). I want to teach people what I’ve learned about gratitude in the course of keeping this blog. I want to be open to new relationships.

I always want to discover new ways I can express myself naturally and be of service.

I realize that the people I met in Argentina probably didn’t take direct routes to where they were when I saw them living out their dreams.

Maybe Rosa raised her family before taking on the mission of feeding her neighbors. Blanca probably took photographs for her own pleasure before mounting them and selling them to hang on other people’s walls. I’m sure Diego worked in other people’s kitchens before opening his own restobar.

Throughout Argentina, I saw many different types of artists. I also met people who made their lives their greatest work of art. Though not famous, they’ve certainly been inspirational to me.

Serving up the best you know how to do – one plate (or one post) at a time — is no small thing.



Let it Begin WITHIN Me

buddah ornamentOkay, I have an eclectic spiritual background. I was raised in a Reform Jewish home (in a very Italian Catholic neighborhood). I have many friends who have resonated with Science of Mind principles, and I have practiced Siddha Yoga Meditation for around 18 years.

And, over the past few Decembers, I have taken to decorating a little Christmas tree in my living room.

This season, a friend’s gift of a shiny turquoise Buddha tops my tree, surprisingly serene amid strands of tiny white lights (a bear to arrange when you’re new to the tradition) and hodgepodge of new or borrowed ornaments.

This sort of blue bodhisattva feels like the right symbol for me to reflect on as 2015 comes to an end and I think about my life’s path as I enter 2016.

The opening line of a popular Christmas carol is “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

I’d like to propose a small modification. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin WITHIN me.

I’ve come to understand that performing consistently compassionate actions in the world requires one to be at peace with oneself first.

I’m not usually a fan of list-icles and have avoided writing blog entries as short articles listing steps for improving one’s life. Who am I to tell someone else how to live?

But I have recently observed a few things about how I slip into a state of inner peace.

1) I set aside regular time for myself. I have declared this time to be sacred. Maybe I’ll spend this time in meditation or reading quietly or taking a walk or composing a prayer or recording my thoughts in a journal.

I aim to carve out my piece of personal time early in the day, or I leave too much room for unexpected things to grab my attention. When quality alone time is left to chance, it is no longer is sacred.

2) I try to be gentle on myself and practice self-acceptance. When I find myself unleashing a barrage of criticisms directed at myself, thoughts that I should have done something better, I stop and ask myself if I would voice such statements to someone else, someone I love.

I have to conclude that if I wouldn’t make such a statement to someone I love, I certainly shouldn’t be telling myself such a thing.

3) Just say THANK YOU. I’ve often had problems accepting compliments or gifts from other people. After receiving something, I would immediately start worrying about reciprocity. I would feel a strong need to be sure I was giving back something of equal or greater value.

I’d turn my back on opportunities to feel regarded well, or even cherished, and take up the banner of worry.

Being ready to say thank you to gifts that come your way is a choice to empower and uplift yourself. It’s also an opportunity to exercise TRUST.

I’ve found that believing in a higher power that can distribute blessings in the best way possible relieves me of a false sense of responsibility and the burdens that go with it.

I am very grateful that I make time for myself and that I use my mind to reflect on my experiences, that I consider actions that can lead to greater self-acceptance.

Beginning with the goal of creating peace within yourself as a way to promote peace in the world is no small thing.





A State of Wonder

christmas 2015A friend called me the other week with an unusual proposition.

“Do you want to see the incredible CHRISTMAS HOUSE in Logan Square?”

The way she spoke, I felt like I should have known the particular address she referred to, but I didn’t.

Being that the weather was unseasonably warm, it wasn’t hard to persuade me to check out this Yule ready dwelling and, apparently, local institution.

I was not ready for the kaleidoscope of colors or sheer mega-wattage of outdoor lights that spanned the house’s exterior walls, huge wrap-around porch and yard. Nor did I expect the house would be such a popular attraction in the neighborhood.

Young parents, from West Town to Albany Park, it seemed, descended on the great corner lot. They dragged their jacketed and hooded toddlers by the hand along the sidewalk or they balanced them on their shoulders so they could see over the crowd.

And everybody’s cell phone was out — in camera mode. Families and groups of friends posed at every spot along the fence. They wanted to capture an image of themselves standing in front of trumpeting angels or in front of the fabled reindeers; framed out in wood and wire, animated by hundreds of tiny white lights.

Everyone seemed to pace up and back retracing the same patch of real estate they had just walked. No one wanted to leave.

We were all in a state of wonder.

Of course, WONDER for the adult in me involved questions like How long did it take to get so many lights up? and How big is their electric bill?

Then I looked at some of the children at the scene who didn’t even want to shut their eyes long enough to blink. I caught myself amazed by the volume and variety of lights and iconic holiday images on display. I wouldn’t have thought it possible – that so many different things could work together — but it did.

And I sort of settled into this feeling as I checked out different parts of the decorations in more depth.

I watched mesmerized as a blue Ferris wheel turned on its axis. I smiled at the little Santa on the roof (easy to miss), and the icicle-shaped bulbs that swayed to the hip-hop style carols that blasted from hidden speakers charmed me.

Maybe that’s really what a state of WONDER is; seeing things or experiencing things that you never would have imagined. And once you’re in this place, having an experience beyond your imagination, you can fathom living your life as a continual series of amazing encounters.

I know that I am struck by synchronicities.   I love it when I get a phone call from someone I was just thinking about.

I love seeing signs of resilience, whether that takes the form of a tired athlete finding a second wind to rally or a plant that I think is toast showing signs of life after a sprinkling.

A selfless act or seemingly unmotivated act of kindness never ceases to amaze me. These things happen all the time.

A stranger may give their airline ticket on a sold-out flight to a stranger that really needs to get home quickly. After a blizzard, people, with no prior relationship, will stop on the street and help others dig their cars out.

It was hard to return to my car after losing myself in the colorful lights of this holiday themed house. There was so much to notice. So much thought and time went in to making an impression, but the actual elements of the CHRISTMAS HOUSE could be found at most Home Depot stores.

It’s our imaginations, and openness to appreciating someone else’s imagination and intentions, that elevates us.

Entering a state of wonder from holiday decorations is no small thing.


Pull Up a Chair, Rosin Up a Bow

galway armsIt’s not surprising that entertaining a visitor became the motivation for trying something new that’s close to home.

Kathy, who is a big fan of Irish and Scottish music, suggested taking our friend, visiting from New York, to the Galway Arms in Lincoln Park for their regular Sunday night gathering.

Each Sunday night, Paddy Homan (singer and percussionist) serves as anchor for a constantly changing group of musicians. He welcomes whatever musician decides to show up and play for a couple hours.

Rosin up your bow and pull up a chair if you enjoy making music and find yourself near Clark & Fullerton on Sunday night.

The evening is unrehearsed and pretty democratic. The ensemble might include a couple fiddles, a guitarist, a bagpiper, a banjo or accordion player, and maybe even a dancer. They take turns suggesting a piece or taking the lead.

The musicians gather around a wine colored faux leather booth and a couple chairs near the fireplace of the prototypical Irish pub. (Yes, from Cork to Madrid, Buenos Aires to Toronto, all Irish pubs seem to be fashioned following the same blueprint.)

Some of the songs were standards. Some of the tunes seemed familiar, but I had never heard the particular version of the lyrics before. I was in the minority here. If not afraid of warbling out of tune, folks with pints in their hands joined in on most choruses.

Funny that I could direct anyone to over a half dozen places in my neighborhood where they could get a steaming hot bowl of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) or injera (Ethiopian bread), but I haven’t been to a good old-fashioned Irish pub and sing-along for years.

It was great to be re-introduced to a pub with a wood-burning fireplace, Guinness and Harp on tap (no need to try to be trendy with a local brew house’s flavor of the week), and a real pig bristle dartboard.

The place evoked a real Cheers feeling. Even if everyone didn’t know each other’s name, it was easy enough to exchange a smile.

We got there early so we could get a seat, nibble on some cod and fries, and pretend to be amused by the blarney of young Irishmen telling tales to the young women setting on nearby bar stools.

Mariko, a classically trained Japanese dancer, sat in the musician’s circle. When she heard something to her liking, she pushed aside her chair and high-stepped her way through a jig that would put the Trinity Academy dancers leading a Saint Paddy’s Day parade to shame.

Back in my twenties, I used to follow my older sister to The Abbey Pub or The Glenshesk – long since closed. At the time, I was more motivated by the idea of being out of my parents’ home than by an attraction to Irish tenors or room-temperature beer.

Visiting the Galway Arms, I was re-acquainted with the warmth and charm of friends, and friendly strangers, getting together for a sing-along.

In such an atmosphere, it’s easy to forgive each other and even easier, in the way we’d smile and glance at each other, to feel that we’ve met before.

Discovering that an old friend, that you haven’t seen in years, lives only a short distance away is no small thing.


Say “Ahhhhh”

bathside-king spaOn Black Friday, I decided to do something I’ve never done before but have wanted to do for a long time. I treated myself to a day at the King Spa and Sauna.

Talking a friend into the adventure made it easier as a first time experience.

The King Spa & Sauna is in a nearby suburb of Chicago. It puts its own spin on what is essentially a Korean tradition, a family friendly spa that includes therapeutic services as it serves simply as a place to relax and get away from the stresses of everyday life.

When you arrive, you pay a reasonable fee for using the facilities for a 24-hour period. You are also given a key, which you wear on coiled plastic bracelet around your wrist, and swipe it each time you want to charge something.

Then you’re directed into the women’s or men’s locker room where you’re given pink or blue cotton shorts and tees. The ensemble is reminiscent of school gym uniforms although the colors represent the traditional palette for baby nurseries.

Attached to the locker complexes are bathing pools and steam saunas. In the women’s pool area, you’ll also find a row of tables where tiny Korean women clad in black panties and bras practically climb over their clients to give full body scrubs (to exfoliate).

Thank God, I had a friend to wander through the complex with me. It was alluring but pretty strange. This presents a minor dilemma; how a place designed for relaxation can actually be anxiety producing. God forbid you should walk naked into a common area.

Beyond the ladies only area, was a corridor to the common area. You had to follow red footprints on the floor to get there (sort of like tracing dance steps at an Arthur Murray studio).

In the center hall, they had several saunas, or specialized chambers, all for different purposes. Some were for detoxing, some for stimulating blood flow or for building your immune system. You could play a game of chess, take a nap (in a Barcalounger on steroids) or book whole body massages or foot massages.

Say Ahhhh.

My friend and I indulged in a 60 minute massage (we were lucky to be able to book them at the same time), then visited about six different saunas, and managed to eat a small order of hand-rolled shrimp dumplings before hitting the bathing pools in the women’s locker.

Ohhhhhh, there was so much to the day.

I learned that you don’t have to speak the same language as your body worker to be able to communicate what you want more of (or less of).

I was reminded how free I was to re-choose. If one sauna was too crowded or too hot, or if I just didn’t like the vibe, I could move on to a different one easily enough.

I overcame the anxiety of parading around the public bathing pool naked. It didn’t take long to discover there were an equal number of younger, better-toned women as there were women who wore a few extra pounds or stretch marks from their pregnancies.

In other words, being naked with mostly strangers, you realize you’re average. You’re pretty much like everybody else.

Delighting in a little pampering is great. Remembering that you’re just like everyone in the world is no small thing.

Room Around the Table

butterfly-leafWhere did the term table leaf come from? (Probably from the same people who decided to call the moving parts on clocks HANDS.) Leaf seems like an odd term for a section of furniture.

I thought about this over the weekend as I’ve been gearing up for our traditional family feast at my sister’s.

She’s been hosting Thanksgiving for forever, it seems. I know I can count on champagne and a beautiful cheese plate to greet me, a wonderful (probably free-range) turkey and sometimes a goose – with blackberry cornbread stuffing, and a wide variety of homemade breads and savory scones she has baked and been packing away in the freezer for weeks.

She’ll often finish the meal with seven or eight desserts that would put most country club sweet tables to shame.

What I can’t count on is the guest list. Over the years, I remember coming over to her house during the week and helping her iron tablecloths and napkins. I could find myself spay-starching and pressing linens for eight or twenty-four.

I am grateful for the care and attention she gives to the dishes she prepares. I am grateful for my good fortune to able to enjoy the abundance such a special meal represents. But I’m really grateful for the EXPANDABLE nature of her table and what it helps me remember and reflect on.

I did a little research on table leaves over the weekend. There are butterfly leaves, which are uniform sections that can be added to the middle of a rectangular or oval table, preserving the table’s shape.

There are drop leaf tables, which are good for small spaces. There are tables where the leaves are self-storing. Extra sections pull out from either end and can be slid back underneath the main section when a smaller surface is all that’s needed.

Even round tables can be fitted with concentric leaves. Sections can be added to the edge of the existing circumference, enabling a table that would normally sit eight to accommodate ten or more.

Some years, only immediate family ended up sitting around our Thanksgiving table. Because our family is small and Barb’s enjoyment in preparing a meal is great, we’ll often adopt what she would refer to as Thanksgiving Orphans, friends who don’t have family nearby or aren’t part of another tradition.

I have a few friends I invite every year and my sister and brother-in-law might invite former co-workers or neighbors that would not otherwise have plans.

I think I like this part of the tradition most of all. Adding leaves to the main table or bringing card tables up from the basement, dressing them in linen and topping them with silverware.

I like the idea of expandable tables.

I like the idea of being with people that always think they can make room for an extra person or two around their table. I’m sure it reflects a greater intention of mine; to spend time among people who want to share – their food or stories; their lives.

Whether you have a little food or a lot, making room at your table for an extra person is no small thing.

Second Time Around

vanny mcbrideDuring a walk, when I first moved into my neighborhood, I came across a tricked out burgundy van. It displayed a caricature of Elwood Blues, one of the personas of actor Dan Aykroyd.

Of course, even thirty plus years after the movie, the Blues Brothers are popular characters in Chicago.

Under the face, in wide and colorful cartoonish letters was the name Van Aykroyd. And even lower on the van you could pick out the word, hankSy, which I assumed to be the name of the artist.

Not only was he skilled at whipping up a great likeness of a beloved character actor on a swatch of molded metal, he had a sly sense of humor. I was taken off guard and laughed out loud the first time, I saw Van Aykroyd.

I Googled “hankSy”and learned that he was a street artist based out of the Big Apple. Apparently, he was also a great fan of puns. And I saw that he was at it again.

On a recent walk in my neighborhood, not far from where I saw Van Aykroyd, I spotted a white van with the mustached and bearded face of actor Danny McBride. The vehicle, of course, bore the name, Vanny McBride.

I didn’t even know who the actor was, but I stopped in the street and found myself laughing. A second time around.

I remember a scene, a vignette, I wrote years ago. In it, a young couple was wandering through a video store (Remember Blockbuster?). They were discussing possible genres to look to rent for the evening’s entertainment.

The male partner wanted to pick out something from the adult section and his girlfriend took issue with this.

“How could you want to watch porno again and again? No matter what the title or premise, they’re all the same.”

Her sweetheart was quick to defend himself, reminding her, “Kids never get tired of watching the Wizard of Oz.”

I thought about that strange phenomena when I caught myself on the street in front of the pun on wheels, how something so familiar could still have the power to please. Why is something funny the second time around?

When I hear a friend tell a joke I’ve heard before, I’ll try to remain quiet and not jump in with the punch line. I might ponder how I’d tell the same anecdote a little differently. I’ll find myself amused by my friend’s efforts to surprise me.

But there’s something beyond loving the intention of the joke teller or prankster, to surprise and delight, which renders even an old joke funny.

There’s a shift that takes place inside you when you realize you could be a witness to a something unexpected. You’re in a state of openness and possibility. It’s being in this state probably more than the actual cleverness of a punch line, that brings on good feelings and laughter.

So I couldn’t help but laugh near the parkway where this white van was parked. The white van told a joke. The joke itself wasn’t surprising, but the vehicle was.

It was a good reminder that the possibility of humor is everywhere. Almost anywhere or anytime, you can walk into that space of openness and that increases the likelihood of liking what’s in front of you.

Being willing to be amused is no small thing.

Resting Place

jer's grillAs I was driving along Montrose the other day, I saw what looked like a bird convention.

Flocks seemed to break out of formation and seek out every available inch on nearby streetlamps and the roof cornice of Jeri’s Grill. And I don’t think they were lining up for a booth or were interested in sampling their biscuits and gravy.

I had to pull over and watch them for a few minutes. I kept thinking about the line from the Robert Frost poem, “…And miles to go before I sleep,” from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

These birds were flying south for the winter. A long journey, but one that they were compelled to take each year. No need for GPS or special navigational device. Maybe they knew the direction from the feel of the sun on their backs.

And just as certainly, they knew when to take advantage of a resting spot.

I used to hang out by the Lincoln Park lagoon in the fall and marvel at the sight of Canadian geese flying in V-formations. Hard to believe the same birds that seemed so oddly proportioned and awkward on their feet could look so elegant in flight.

The birds hanging out at Jeri’s roof were smaller and more mundane. Their flight path, while maybe not as long or constrained by the shape they took for group flight, was challenging because of the sheer size of their group.

I wondered if the same group stayed together for their entire journey or if individual birds naturally broke away from one flock and reattached to another after resting, when ready to move again. Anyway, there must have been over thirty.

I thought about summer vacations when I was growing up, road trips to the Wisconsin Dells or South Haven, Michigan. My father would often pull off the highway at a rest stop, even when we didn’t need gas.

Rest stops usually included toilets and vending machines and often included a place to eat and a gift shop.

Before these roadside oases featured familiar fast food franchises like Subway, our favorite place to stop was Stuckeys. My sisters and I could get lost wandering through the gift shop. We would invariably bring pecan divinities or log rolls back to the car, making the next leg of our trip messier but oh so much sweeter.

It’s amazing how many rest stops cross my path in any day. I don’t usually give their presence much thought.

At large indoor shopping malls, there are atriums with greenery (even plastic greenery can be welcome after staring at modern Plexiglas displays). When you need to suspend exercising your credit card (which, we all know, can be exhausting), you can head to the food court and sit down.

There are usually coffee shops by commuter stations. Fitting that places where people are on the go are surrounded by places made for stopping.

There are usually benches by bus stops, alongside walking paths, or overlooking scenic views. I thought of this phenomena as a little miracle as I watched the migrating birds on the roof of Jeri’s Grill.

It must be an overlooked law of nature that usually when you have to rest, the perfect resting spot appears.

Or maybe when you need to take five or ten, any place you stop seems like the perfect spot.

Appreciating welcoming places to rest and taking the time to give yourself a break is no small thing.


pumpkin patchI like the season, fall. I think it’s my favorite time of year.

Odd that it makes me think so much about life when it’s the time of year when the lushness of summer relinquishes its hold over the local scenery.

Fall’s changing weather is a good metaphor for my health and energy. The season features good days and bad days. Sometimes I’m full of energy and sometimes I can’t sleep or my joints are a little stiff. I don’t always know why.

On some days, the sun is so warm and close that you can feel your face warming up as you read just inside your living room window or when you do dishes at your kitchen sink.

Its rain, unlike summer thunderstorms that come on suddenly and leave just as quickly, can last several days. The newly fallen leaves seem to turn into a brownish paste on the sidewalk and stick to your shoes and clog the sewer covers in the street.

Fall rain is not a passing event, predicted to the minute by the local weather service. Fall rain settles in for some time and has the power to color your mood for a while.

Fall reminds me to downsize.

When I go through my biannual closet cleaning and transferring ritual, I think about what I really need right now. I’ll pack up my tees and sundresses and move them into the closet in my guest room and bring my nice sweaters back to my bedroom closet.

I’ll count my dry cleaning bags with just a little anxiety, praying that I didn’t inadvertently leave any beloved cashmere Christmas present at the cleaners last April when I finally gave up the notion that I might yet need to dress for warmth.

I’ll try to delay turning on my furnace when the nights start getting colder as if there’s a magic date I need to adhere to. I’ll walk around my home wearing extra layers for much of October, like I’m camping inside, until I finally break down and turn the heat on.

Fall has taught me, life has taught me, that there is no magic date for anything. Except for filing your taxes, each person pretty much decides when he can do something and understands what the consequences are for taking different actions.

Trying to delay turning on the furnace in the fall because of the cost, then programming thermostat thresholds when comfort becomes more important is an odd form of self-acceptance that seems to come with middle age. I appreciate the struggle, the friction over weighing my options and finally making a decision.

In the fall, making plans for entertainment is different. You have to be more conscious. You have to do more research, but that’s okay.

In the summer, I know there are almost always outdoor concerts I can go to. Or, I can amuse myself simply by sitting out on my deck, sipping a drink and watching the trains go by.

It’s entertaining just to be outside.

In the fall, there are plays and gallery openings and new TV shows. It’s easier to get together with friends (who are usually back from vacations), but you’re required to plan things more, to make more of an effort. It’s good to ask yourself what do you really want to do?

I think of fall as a time for new beginnings. Like many plants, it seems you can’t expect new growth until you cut away old shoots that don’t grow any more. Fall is the right time for this.

It’s a time to ask yourself what do you love. What do you really want in your life?

Fall presents a great reminder not to take anything for granted, and that’s no small thing.

Playing Dress-up

fridaA friend called during the week, reminding me of another friend’s Halloween party this past Saturday.

I was non-committal about making plans and closed our conversation with ”I’ll let you know.”

Truth is I had never managed to attend Joe’s annual party and always wanted to go, but the event had not been on my radar, and I had not given any thought to costume ideas.

I used to love dressing up for Halloween. Rather than buy whatever costume concept was trending, I would take a very homemade approach, often enlisting the help of friends who were more patient with a paint brush or could provide finishing touches that I couldn’t do (from inside whatever structure I concocted).

One year, I went as an ATM, a cash station. One year, I made a simple dress out of an Astroturf-like fabric and made a small hat with “ears” out of the same material. The only Chia Pet I’ve ever seen on Halloween.

But I didn’t have fresh ideas and I was close to giving up on going when my friend Lynne suggested I dress up as Mexican painter – and practically the inventor of selfies — Frida Kahlo.

Many years ago, I saw a friend successfully transform herself into Frida and doubted whether I could pull it off. Keen on recycling clothes I don’t wear, I couldn’t recall having a print skirt or Mexican style peasant blouse in the back of my closet.

But Lynne gave me a shopping list and was willing to loan me a colorfully embroidered cotton dress. She told me to visit the dollar store and buy eyebrow pencil and plastic flowers.

I thought I would anchor an aluminum foiled covered pole behind my bra strap as a twisted way to refer to the bus accident she lived through while a teenager.

An hour before heading out for the party, I showed up at Lynne’s. I shimmied into the Mexican smock she picked out for me and sat down on her couch as she drew in the infamous UNIBROW.

She placed a few of the dollar store flowers in my hair. (We both laughed at the fact that already gearing up for the next big decorating holiday, my options were limited to plastic poinsettias.)

There. Done.

Proud of her make-up job, Lynne brought out a hand mirror. Unaccustomed to wearing eyebrow pencil at all, let alone wearing it in an area that should be blank, I remember hoping that I wouldn’t accidentally rub my face during the night and smear my temporary bushy brows.

I put on a little lipstick and some dangly earrings. As I was leaving her apartment, we both noticed a stuffed animal in her living room, a little red monkey. We remembered that Frida was often seen with a pet monkey, and I draped the plaything’s arms around my neck and shoulders.

People at the party recognized the character pretty much right away, although one youngish woman looked at me for a while before looking for validation on her best guess.

“Salma Hayek?” she asked tentatively.

Close enough. I gently corrected her.

“Salma Hayek played her in the movie.”

I chatted and grazed from a great buffet with a devil, a sombrero shaded, gun toting bandito and his jalapeno pepper partner, a prison guard and inmate, an owl and a few skeletons.

I coyly asked some of the partiers if they wanted to pet my monkey.

All in all, I had a great time.

Thanks to my friend’s creativity and her closet, not to mention the proximity of a dollar store, I got to play dress-up for the evening for less than $5.

Play is the operative word.

Yes, kids in my neighborhood will ring doorbells on the 31st and fill up satchels or plastic molded jack-o-lanterns with miniature Snickers and such, but Halloween has become an occasion when adults give themselves permission to play.

There’s definitely a certain kind of freedom that comes from being yourself in the world. There’s also a wonderful sense of freedom and joy to be experienced from not being yourself, from making yourself appear practically unrecognizable.

Playing dress-up is no small thing.




eigth blackbird 2I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that after enjoying dress rehearsal at the Lyric Opera a few weeks ago, I would find myself spellbound by another type of rehearsal.

But I was so amazed!

The vibe was totally different. When I watched the dress rehearsal for Lyric’s new production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, I was touched by how much the audience appreciated the production because they were probably gifted their tickets by friends who were subscribers.

Here, I was touched by the group’s level of musicianship and the intimacy of being able to sit in on what was essentially a practice session.

eighth blackbird is an ensemble of classically trained musicians who integrate a broad range of influences and collaborations to make what they do about more than performing very polished contemporary classical music.

I caught some of their rehearsal time during their Artists in Residence program at Chicago’s MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) earlier this month.

In their residency program, they have taken over the museum’s third floor. In an open area, the museum set up videos and earphones where you can learn about them, see segments from past performances, and explore your feelings about what constitutes MUSIC.

In a nearby gallery, they had set up a practice studio. Practice hours were posted on a sign (mirroring the hours that appeared on the museum’s website).

They had all their instruments there, from a Steinway grand to a tiny silver triangle and wand. Musical scores were arranged on several stands.

A piece of 8 ½” x 11” white paper hung on a clipboard at one side of the gallery cum rehearsal room. On it were posted the names of the pieces (and composers) they planned to work on that afternoon.

Insulated paper cups from Starbucks, looking very natural in the setting, punctuated the space.

In fact, everything seemed extremely natural — except that I, and about a dozen other people, were observing their practice. This was different.

They stopped and restarted if there was a section of music one ensemble member wanted to go over. They seemed very democratic in how they approached using their practice time.

They listened to each other’s opinions. Everyone exercised great openness when they negotiated a place in the score for resuming.

Occasionally, they smiled when they came to a difficult passage. Without providing details of last week’s rehearsal in words, you could almost tell when a few notes or lines gave someone a problem in the past.

You could almost sense their satisfaction at navigating a section with greater ease than they did the last time they practiced it.

I had never heard of them before, but as I made my way down the wide spiral stairs and came across their sign showing that they were soon to begin their late afternoon rehearsal, I had to stay. I never experienced anything like this.

I stood for over an hour with my heavy backpack still strapped on as I watched the oddly perfect and totally intimate experience of observing them practice.

Perfect, in this sense, does not mean without flaws. Watching eighth blackbird practice was a reminder that everything is PERFECT.

Everything is always in a state of becoming. It was refreshing to listen to talented musicians where the emphasis was not on a single performance. Watching them was a special invitation to witness people who loved to make music together and loved the idea of always improving.

Appreciating being in PROCESS is no small thing.



dairy shelf at harvesttimeI rarely use recipes when I cook. I call it karma cooking. I’ll know the basic ingredients, combine them and be open to how things come together. (Yes, I’ll gladly leave baking to friends who are more apt to use measuring spoons.)

Over time, I might have started with a recipe as a guide and have adjusted the ingredients or proportions to my liking.

The other week, I was preparing to whip up one of my favorite appetizers for an end of summer picnic, my version of salmon spread. I like using both green onions and fresh dill. I also use cream cheese AND sour cream.

I went over what items I had in my refrigerator (careful to read expiration dates) and made out a shipping list for the rest. Then I gathered my totes and headed to Harvesttime, my neighborhood grocery store.

After picking up some staples for the house, I headed towards the back of the store, towards the refrigerator case.

I walked past the butter and eggs then down past the long row of yogurts. There seemed to be dozens of brands in lots of different sized containers.

Then I walked to the diary case where they kept milk and cream and cottage cheese and such. I spotted sour cream. I saw less-fat, lite, and regular versions in three different brands.

But I didn’t see any in 8-ounce containers. I don’t use sour cream often. I didn’t want to buy a large container and end up throwing most of it out.

I stood on tiptoes in front of the refrigerator shelves and looked towards the back. I was hoping small containers of Daisy brand might have been pushed to the back of the shelf and I would just have to swat the correctly sized plastic tubs forwards.

No luck.

I asked one of the store clerks to help me. He was busy replenishing a section of the refrigerator case with orange juice. He said, “Just a minute.”

I returned to the shelf and waited. And waited. I was beginning to get exasperated.

All I wanted was a couple tablespoons of sour cream. I pulled down a large container from the shelf and studied it. It cost about three times more than the container size I needed. I hated the thought of spending money unnecessarily.

But I really hated to waste my time.

I asked another stock boy, who was bustling about, if he could help me. He went to the back room, beyond the hanging plastic strips that divide the front of the store from the cold room that was the stock area.

Again, I considered buying the pint-sized container.

Then he emerged with the bottom half of a cardboard box that contained maybe twelve 8-ounce white containers of Daisy sour cream. He handed me one and arranged the rest on the shelf.

Who’d imagine this would make me so happy? But, as I pushed my cart towards the checkout, I was grinning. I was proud of myself.

At one time, I probably would have bought the large container then fumed weeks later when I ended up washing most of it down my drain.

But I asked for help – and I waited. I got just what I wanted.

Being willing to wait for what you want is no small thing.

Dress Rehearsal

lyrics stageI got to my seat just before the lights dimmed and the announcement was made.

Before any overture, Roger Pines, the dramaturg at the Lyric Opera, or some other nicely suited gentleman, walks onto the stage and reminds people that they are about the see a dress rehearsal.

He politely points out that the performers might not choose to sing in full voice and that the production could be stopped, at the director’s discretion, to fix or change things.

I’ve seen many dress rehearsals over the years. I’ve noticed occasions when the crew will probably work on picking up the pace for scene changes, but I’ve never seen a performance stopped and divas or star baritones asked for a do-over.

For the most part, dress rehearsals are as good as performances staged during the official run. It some ways, they’re better.

Before I grabbed a program and journeyed up the aisle to my seat, I remembered the sights of the grand hall.

There were couples with young children, maybe eight to twelve years old. The kids, dressed up in their Sunday clothes for an afternoon outing downtown, fidgeted with excitement.

A caped woman (no, not really a super-hero) scanned their tickets. I tried to imagine their reaction to things inside the auditorium. It holds 3500 and the ceiling is finished in gold leaf.

Not what they’d see at the local cineplex.

While I wondered if their parents would be asked to explain the bawdy parts in their SUV during their ride home, I liked to think that, for a ten year-old, of The Marriage of Figaro is a wonderful introduction to opera.

I liked the idea that this matinee at the civic opera house welcomed a good percentage of first timers. Certainly, most of the audience, which represented nearly a full house, were gifted their tickets.

Dress rehearsal tickets at the Lyric are considered donor benefits. Most of my fellow audience members got passes from someone they knew who was a season subscriber or donor.

I am the happy benefactor of four dress rehearsal tickets for this season from my sister who has been a subscriber for a gazillion years.

Dress rehearsal tickets are free! Either a subscriber uses her allotment because she gets a special pleasure from comparing this performance to one from the middle of the run or she gives the ticket to someone she knows who really, really wants to go.

Maybe she has a friend who can’t afford a ticket or maybe knows someone who is just interested in certain operas and not in subscribing for the season.

As I contemplated what was different about this production from other productions of Figaro that I’ve seen, I contemplated this as well; that the audience was so happy to be here.

I think I prefer going to preview nights of plays as well.

Maybe performers love opening nights the most. They enjoy the buzz around a new production, having family members in the audience, or the chance that a critic will speak well of them in reviews.

Maybe the box office and board members beam at the prospects of a sell-out. For Friday and Saturday night performances, the valet attendants might take special care to service VIPs and nearby eateries are happy to take early dinner reservations.

…But I think I like going to dress rehearsals the best because most audience members are experiencing the performance as a gift.

Being around the energy of appreciation is no small thing.


Playing in the Band

band-girl My friend Lynne and I have been observing the annual tradition of Oktoberfest in our neighborhood for years. It runs over a weekend in mid-September.

I usually just make it over to the big tent on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon to have a brat and a beer. I had never seen the opening parade before.

It was a beautiful day and I was a little giddy at the prospects of having a first-time experience.

And the spot Lynne picked out was perfect. Just across from the library, it provided good views and wasn’t particularly crowded.

Families sat on the curb as lederhosen-wearing teens and girls in their dirndl dresses tossed out candy from passing floats.

Why is Oktoberfest in September? I think I pose this question to Lynne every year as if it might unlock one of the great mysteries of life.

We laughed as we watched the parade and the parade-watchers.

There were tricked out VW Beetles chugging down the street, old bald men in Kaiser Wilhelm style spear-topped helmets carrying Deutsch-American banners, knee-slapping dancers on a float that resembled the Brandenburg Gate, and blue and white themed vehicles transporting bawdy looking barmaids. They were from Hofbrau Beer, one of the official sponsors of the event.

The old lady who sat on a folding chair next to us, confided good-naturedly., “Look at the old Germans who came in from the suburbs for this.”

We took special note of the marching bands, which were usually led by a small group of flag or banner carrying guards announcing where the group was from. Hard to believe some featured groups came all the way from Milwaukee for a neighborhood parade.

A few folks, dressed in their everyday garb walked in between the bands and slow-moving flatbeds. They’d shake hands with people standing along the route or pass out diminutive black, gold and red flags. Politicians, happy to be German for a day.

I first spotted the Riverside-Brookfield High School marching band when they were a couple blocks away. They wore navy blue jackets and hats with white feathers. It was a big group. I watched the faces of the teens as they came closer. Some were so serious and others …

I started to think about when I marched in my high school band. I played the flute. I remembered the flute section usually occupied the front row. We had to keep an eye out for horse droppings if we were following a troop of mounted policemen.

When we marched in the big Christmas parade downtown, it was hard to keep our hands warm and impossible to keep our instruments from going flat. I smiled at the thought of high school band rivalries and the simplicity of the musical arrangements we played.

The band stopped in front of the library. I listened intently to the music, trying to pick out the name of the tune. Was it a Beatles number? No.

Slowly, the lyrics started filtering into my mind. Hey, hey, hey baby…I want to know if you’ll be my girl…

A girl near my side of the street caught my attention. She wasn’t particularly tall, but she didn’t seem dwarfed by the sax she carried. She wore sunglasses and actually danced in place when the band stopped in front of Sulzer Library.

She loved playing music. She loved dancing. She loved marching in the band.

As she swung her torso from side to side, I saw that she was happy. Under her short brown hair, behind her sunglasses, I imagined that her eyes were smiling. Seeing her dance in place made me happy too.

Hey-ay-ay bay-bee…

Ah, what could be better than wearing a uniform (with feathered hat), toting around your saxophone, and dancing in place to a classic rock love song?

Being in the band, marching in a parade on a perfect September day is no small thing


Right Place, Right Time

rainbow at milennium park2The weather forecast for the season’s last planned picnic at Millennium Park had us more than a little tentative.

As my friend Holly said, “It’s okay being cold OR getting a little wet, but I’m not a fan of cold AND wet.”

With temperatures predicted to be in the low to mid-sixties and a 50-50 chance of rain, some of our concert-going regulars bailed.

But hungry for the last bit of summer, great grazing food, or just music fans, we put together a respectably sized group anyway.

I was the first to arrive. I quickly staked out turf for an expandable party and opened our first bottle of wine.

As each of us arrived, we pulled our collapsible lawn chairs out of their pouches, filled our clear plastic cups and paced around our swatch of lawn.

We nibbled on exotic chesses, artisan breads and the miniature alfajors, Peruvian sandwich cookies, Marena brought (acknowledging that we couldn’t wait until dessert to sample them).

Periodically, we’d also look at the sky. It was pretty gray. We were on ALERT.

We didn’t want to have to run for cover after the conductor’s baton came down. We didn’t want to admit we were foolhardy in making a picnic and traveling downtown for an event that wouldn’t take place.

“Did you feel that?” “I think I felt a drop.”

We began speaking in a strange sort of code. We didn’t want to entertain the thought that we might get soaked. We wanted to be reassured that we’d all stay dry, that the concert would take place as planned.

After a few rounds of Did you feel that? we went maybe ten minutes without feeling compelled to ask.

How could it be that we got off so lucky? That only a few raindrops fell on the park and the severe weather alert was over? But no more rain fell.

We looked at the sky again. It was still gray. But between the lattice-like connecting steel tubes that held the speakers in place and stretched out over the lawn, we could see the faint outline of a rainbow.

The colors were not super bright. This was an urban sort of rainbow, not an enchanted leprechaun animation, after all. But the color spectrum and arch was unmistakable.

How great it is to have such a tangible sign of good fortune!

Okay, most of us have positive associations with rainbows. As children watching The Wizard of Oz, we imagined a colorful land of little people and wish-fulfilling ruby slippers.

Creativity, inspiration, and social justice have all been associated with rainbows.

When I first made out the colors and shape of the rainbow, I felt that it was a sign that the rain had ended, and I didn’t have to be anxious about the weather ruining my plans.

But not just as a sign, the fact of being able to SEE the rainbow made me feel doubly lucky.

Water, as rain, forming a sort of prism, bends sunlight to different degrees.

In order to see a rainbow, the sun needs to be 42° or lower in the horizon. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to see rainbows. I guess that 7:15 PM CT, just before sunset, was a good time.

Being in the right place at the right time to see a rainbow is no small thing.


iguazu fallsI’ve heard the word ABUNDANCE used frequently for years now.

For many, ABUNDANCE is a nice way to admit you want to be wealthy. It’s about the state of your bank account and the anticipation that material wealth will expand, maybe transform, how you feel about life.

For some, It’s a fancy way to say LOTS. It’s all about quantity.

In a simple way, ABUNDANCE implies having more than what you need.

It’s a loaded term, for sure. It’s also subjective and experiential. What different people might think of as being more than enough is not the same. But I think most people would agree on this:

Abundance has to be felt or experienced to be understood.

I experienced ABUNDANCE as I have never have before when I spent a day at Iguazu Falls.

I probably wouldn’t have known the place existed except that Iguacu was the name of a favorite album put out by the German jazz ensemble Passport when I went to college.

I kept the image from the album cover in the back of my mind for years, not actually considering the Falls as a bucket list destination so much as a magical place that existed in music. Once I decided to go to Argentina, however, I could not imagine not adding an excursion there to my itinerary.

The Falls are located where the Iguazu River tumbles over the edge of the Parana Plateau. Brazil and Paraguay also touch the river but the majority of the falls are in Argentina.

There are over 250 falls in the area; some, like Devil’s Throat, are very wide and others are narrow and tucked away. Stumbling across one of the smaller cascades and spending time alone there feels like having you own private paradise.

While at the national park, I was compelled to do everything a tourist could do. I took the train and laughed at the antics of the coutis, the jungle cousin to the raccoon. I paid extra for the Gran Adventura, a ride through the jungle on a large and open jeep and short speed boat ride so that I could see some of the falls up close (and get a healthy soaking).

Each fall was more beautiful than the next. Each had its own personality and each one seemed to change as I stood watching, sometimes snapping photographs, sometimes just smiling, open-mouthed, in awe.

Watching the flow of the river, how the water had to move around rocks and small islands, witnessing the possibilities in course and the inevitability of falling, gave me a special appreciation for living in the present.

The falls were constantly changing. Being surrounded by lush green vegetation only made being there more amazing. I loved listening to the rush of water, the feeling of the mist on my skin, the moist and earthy smell of being in the jungle.

I felt very ALIVE and that the world I inhabited was ABUNDANT.

The flow of beauty was never-ending and I had everything I needed.

Abundance seems so hard to define, but you know it when you feel it.

I am so grateful that I spent a day at Iguazu Falls, that I wandered along the metal bridge close enough to feel the spray, that I moved at my own pace, that I stepped out of my little fears – that I allowed myself to get wet!

Abundance seems to be like love or confidence. Once you experience it, you know what you want to return to.

Knowing, in the body, that ABUNDANCE can be YOURS, that it’s not just a concept, that it’s not just for others, is no small thing.





Never Too Old

tango dancers in san telmoFor weeks before I left for Buenos Aires, I scanned Trip Advisor and old Fodor’s and Lonely Planet guidebooks. I wanted to get ideas on what might be considered must dos in a limited amount of time.

Eating grass-fed beef and sampling the national cookie, the alfajor, quickly went on my to do list. Of course, I had to catch a tango show and check out a milonga.

Buenos Aires is also famous for their ferias, their outdoor markets. Anywhere from thirty to hundreds of stands can occupy a neighborhood square or blocks of continuous streets.

The vendors might feature bric-a-brac, like old silverware or colored glasses, or small leather goods. At some markets, you might find handmade silver jewelry and antiques.

After some research, I set my heart on going to the Feria de San Telmo, the largest market in town. It starts at the Plaza Dorrego and runs all the way up Defensa Street.

About 300 vendors show their wares each Sunday. Fortunately, the weather was good on the last Sunday of my stay, and I found a cab driver that understood my imperfect directions.

Before I even got to the square, I saw several photographers and artists that had set up shop. I wondered how they were ready to go to work before noon when they probably only got in from their Saturday night a few hours earlier.

I came more to look than to shop, but it was hard not to buy a few things. I treated myself to a couple black and white prints of bandoneons, accordians used to play tango music, and I bought myself a scarf.

At the San Telmo market, I saw everything from gaucho pants to old copper teakettles to antique telephones to hand-drawn mandalas.

Entrepreneurial teenage boys wielded portable coffee shops (carts) down the brick road, serving croissants, coffee and yerba mate (a hot tea-like infusion). One man, zigzagging down Defensa, looking like Chicken Man, sold feather dusters from his back.

And on one corner of the square, in front of Brasserie Petanque, a fixture at the weekly fest, they laid down a 10 foot square piece of wooden board. A few musicians gathered nearby and an old couple danced the tango.

A bucket was set out to collect donations. Who knows if the man and woman was husband and wife, or brother and sister, or just good dancers, but watching them triggered such a sweet sense of romance in me. And hopefulness. I watched them dance for some time.

They were graceful. They obviously felt the music. There was a clear affection between them and a lot of shared history. They loved dancing together.

It was a strange sort of intimacy displayed in public. It was natural and inspiring. More beautiful than the toned and precise dancers I saw at the Madero Tango show.

Dressing up and dancing in the square on Sunday afternoons was just what they did.

I thought…

You’re never too old to fall in love.

You’re never too old to dance in pubic.

You’re never too old to put on a fedora or don your lowest hanging earrings.

You’re never too old to hang out with the band.

You’re never too old….

My mind created a slew of ways to complete this sentence. It was nice to think about possibilities instead of limitations or excuses.

Not only did I get to see the merchants and shoppers at the Feria de San Telmo, I got to see the tango performed with unexpected tenderness and beauty.

Believing that I, too, can radiate love and vitality as I age, is no small thing.



The Ultimate Non-Selfie

deb at a zafronDuring most of my travels in Argentina, I was in the company of five other women (fellow travelers) and one man (our guide). I teased Nacho (Ignacio) more than once about having six wives.

Every time, my group went to a restaurant, our cameras came out. The theme of the tour was The Real Food of Argentina, so it was probably not surprising that we liked to take food related photos.

We liked to take shots of how plates were presented, the wine cellars we were allowed to enter, the chefs (if we were lucky enough to catch them in good moods), and the people with whom we shared our meals.

As a tour guide myself, largely leading high school groups through downtown Chicago to introduce them to our architecture and re-invented green spaces, I admit that I’m not happy about the growing popularity of selfies.

While recognizing the convenience of being able to capture a memory yourself, I can get wistful about how selfies have practically eliminated certain kinds of conversations between strangers.

To me, asking another person to take a photograph of you — for you — can be a doorway to a bigger conversation, to exchanging advice or sharing likes and dislikes.

Maybe you want to have a photograph that helps you remember that you actually saw the Andes or that you stepped out onto a wooden dance floor at a milonga. Maybe you want to remember that you raised a glass of Gran Reserva in a tasting room at a boutique winery.

And while the fact of being in a particular place can be captured with a cellphone camera mounted on a stick, so much more can be infused into a photograph.

It’s beautiful when a person asks something of another person (like taking a photograph). More than likely, the person being asked is only too happy to perform the task.

The desire to have such a memento may push someone into starting a conversation, making a connection with another person that might not otherwise happen.

In negotiating this kind of thing despite a language barrier, one can take encouragement in trying to communicate other things.

There’s a special kind of trust that surfaces when you hand a stranger or new companion your camera. It’s a small act that reinforces a sense of shared humanity and interdependence.

And then there’s something else…

When my group arrived in Mendoza and the weather was not cooperating with planned outdoor activities, Nacho took his six wives to a Zafran, a wonderful restaurant near the main square.

Shortly after walking into the rustic chic dining room, the ladies withdrew their cellphones and standalone cameras and started snapping away.

The artwork was inviting. The table looked simple, yet elegant. The breadbasket included a carefully thought out variety and the way the small dish of butter was transformed into something special by the colorful addition of beet juice — everything seemed worthy of remembering and of photographing.

I don’t exactly remember what I was thinking in the moment, but I handed my camera to Ali, one of my travel companions,  and asked her to take a picture of me. I was basking in the indulgence of a long delectable lunch. I was far away from home, on an adventure where I felt both safe and open to surprises.

I trusted her. She took a picture of me that is better than I could imagine taking myself with a cellphone on a stick.

Not only does traveling help you look at the world differently, it provides new opportunities to take in how others see you.

Maybe a subtle softness or vulnerability or different aspect of your character can best be captured when a fresh eye is behind the lens of a camera.

Trusting that someone else can really see how you are in the world is no small thing.


Photograph by Ali Gordon.

Choosing Teams

la boca stadiumAs I remember the story…three generations of women in a family are sitting around a dinner table. It’s the first time the youngest, in her late twenties, is hosting a family meal. As the main course, a beautiful beef roast, is brought to the table for carving, the grandmother asks why the end of the roast is already cut off.

The hostess answers that this was the way her mother always prepared roasts. The hostess’s mother remarks that she always did this because her mother always cut the end off, then the grandmother explains that she only did this because the roasting pan she had was small.

I thought about this story many times when I was traveling in Argentina. Not so much because of culinary methods but because I often witnessed how sports traditions run in families  — often without question.

Almost every conversation with a local host or taxi driver included a single, simple question: La Boca or River Plate?

Of course, this question is meant to uncover which Buenos Aires football team a person swears his allegiance to.

River Plate (named after the Rio de la Plata, the estuary that separates Argentina from Uruguay) is actually the older of the two teams, but the Juniors, from the colorful barrio (neighborhood) of La Boca, first settled by Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, is probably the most famous team outside of Buenos Aires. Both teams have many titles and trophies to their credit.

Nacho, our guide, was a big River Plate fan. If we were engaged in an activity with a local family, he would invariably raise the question with our hosts, even with their children: La Boca or River Plate?

Hi fives or quick attempts to change subjects followed.

When we asked Nacho why he was such a big River Plate fan, he replied that his father was. He couldn’t think of an additional reason.

It made me think that our allegiances to certain sports teams, like the shapes of our noses or tendency to save or spend, if not determined by our genes, is at least so ingrained by family influences that by the time we’re nine, we can’t imagine rooting for another team.

I know of such a cross-town rivalry by direct experience. In Chicago, baseball fans are either Cubs or White Sox fans. Though Larry and Gary Foster, evil twins that tormented me during second grade, were Sox fans and I have bad associations with them, I think the biggest reason I bleed Cubbie blue blood is because my Uncle George loved the Cubs. And I loved Uncle George.

I don’t think that choosing a team for lifelong devotion can be predicted by race or economic status or even by neighborhood. (Nacho didn’t live in the Belgrano neighborhood where River Plate’s stadium has been located since 1938.)

I’ve known people that chose their team because they liked their uniform and others that were inspired by particular players or chose their team due to the pressures of their geography. But, for the most part, I think people choose to be fans of teams because of family traditions.

And in a way, isn’t your fellow La Boca supporters or River Plate rooters or Cub fans your family? Your tribe? I saw how happy the Argentinians I saw were when they discovered someone else who cheered for the same team.

We choose our teams, but in the families we’re born into, maybe most of this choice is made for us already. It’s enlivening to have a champion to cheer for and a rival to cheer against. It’s fun to see this same truth play out in different countries.

That palpable joy can be seen when a person – anywhere – connects with a fellow fan is no small thing.



Do Argentinian Pigeons Tango?

argentine pigeonsMy arrival at EZE, the international airport of Buenos Aires, was E-A-S-Y.

The driver that was arranged to pick me up arrived on time. Sporting a mustachioed smile, I spotted him holding a hand-lettered sign with my name just beyond the automatic glass doors past the baggage claim.

He didn’t speak much English and I spoke even less Spanish. He laughed when I demonstrated the limits of my vocabulary (cerveza fria, vino tinto, la cuento, hola, and el bano).

Getting to my hotel too early for check-in, I decided to take a short walking tour of the immediate area. I wandered through the famous cemetery where Don’t Cry For Me Argentina Evita is buried. I made a mental note not to bother to visit the ubiquitous Irish bar and Hard Rock Café that was also nearby.

Within a couple minutes, I found myself at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes; a wonderful FREE museum featuring works by van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin, and Modigliani.

After the museum, it dawned on me that I hadn’t eaten anything except airplane food for about 24 hours. I was an easy target for the hostess of a restaurant/bar a few doors from my hotel. She was trying to entice passersby to take advantage of their prix fixe lunch special.

I sat at a table outside and enjoyed a leisurely lunch consisting of an empanada appetizer, a grilled sirloin steak, yummy profiteroles and a fine glass of Malbec. All for about $20! As I was finishing, at around 3:00, the lunch crowd was just starting to fill up the café seats. (Since dinner is normally eaten at around 10:00 or 11:00, lunch is taken long past mid-day.)

Sipping my wine, I became transfixed and amused by the sight of pigeons venturing boldly near the tables.

One pigeon, maybe Francisco or Christina Maria, strutted between the tables as if she owned the place. The bird did not seem bothered by either the tourists or the narrowness of the path between tables. While wide in the chest, this bird looked almost delicate and deliberate in her movements.

I had to ask myself, Do Argentinian pigeons tango?

Do Argentinian pigeons step lightly?

Do they walk in straight lines and move with their flock in an oval?

Can they walk backwards?

Do they look for partners?

Can they execute an ocho, pivoting on the balls of their feet, their claws?

Do they attempt an occasional scissors kick when they feel like showing off?

Do they listen to an inner music and synchronize their movements to the beats of their hearts?


We have pigeons in Chicago. I mostly think of them as a nuisance, as poor-flying birds and virtual shitting machines. (Is any statue, plaza or church steeple safe from their droppings?)

I normally don’t wax on romantically about pigeons. I don’t usually think about them in magical, almost human terms. I was surprised that under the umbrella of my little table in a Recoleta cafe, with a near empty-glass of vino tinto, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

But maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

That a traveler can look at something very common from a different vantage point, feeding their imagination and stirring up a sense of wonder, is no small thing.


packed suitcaseWow, I did it. I made the decision to go on vacation.

I released concerns about spending money (while, as a freelancer, I wouldn’t be making any). I didn’t hold myself back because I didn’t have a travel companion. I made air reservations myself — online, something I don’t like to do.

I chose a destination that inspires a little romance and sense of adventure but does not involve riding on a donkey or swatting flies on a river barge. ARGENTINA!

I’ll be on a small group tour covering Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Eco de Valle and decided to tack on a short excursion to Iguazu Falls before flying 14 hours back to Chicago.

I leave Friday and am very excited.

I know traveling is largely about connecting with other people. Memorable experiences often boil down to seeing how much you have in common despite cultural differences. Music, good wine, and ice cream — all of which is in great supply where I’ll be going – are all great things to share.

Right now, I have to pack. And this is something I have to do alone.

Packing is a process that starts long before you actually bring out your suitcase from the back of the closet and take the flight tags off from the last trip.

I have been thinking about what to bring for a while.

The process of packing is akin to assessing where you are at any point in your life.

Aren’t we all continually asking ourselves what we want to take with us as we move forward and what we want to leave behind?

A few years ago, I saw a documentary called Walking the Camino about people from different parts of the world retracing an ancient route taken by pilgrims. They start in southern France and finish at the St. James Cathedral in Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain.

The documentarian, not your typical pilgrim, found her biggest lesson in how she shed things during the month-long walk. The very things she thought she needed, like foot spray and extra clothes, actually weighed her down.

While I won’t go as far as limiting what I pack to my toothbrush and change of underwear, I have been mindful not to convince myself I need half my closet.

I have also been thoughtful about making room for LOVE. I can’t imagine that I won’t fall in love with some things that I won’t want to take back with me.

I hope to bring home two bottles of Malbec. One would be ear-marked to open with the ladies from my building on our back deck.  The other would be uncorked for a special occasion TBD.

It’s good to pack light so as not to burden yourself with things that weigh you down and to leave room for new things that bring you joy.

Filling a little suitcase for an eleven-day adventure in another continent, maybe a shift in perspective, is no small thing.

At My Doorstep

Daisy 1Last week, a friend of mine called me with an unexpected invitation.

A friend of hers who runs a pet ministry at a local church called her about Daisy. Although she regularly fosters dogs and would have opened her own home, her schedule was very busy and she remembered I was considering adopting a dog from a shelter. She thought this would be a good experience for me.

Daisy, she explained, is an older dog, maybe around ten; a toy poodle. She is toilet trained, very affectionate, not a barker, and healthy. Daisy’s back story, as she understood it:

Her owner had a stroke several months ago. Her owner’s landlady provided basic care, but, as it looked like her owner was going to be in an extended care facility for some time (maybe never being able to return to full capacity), Daisy and two cats needed to find new homes.

I picked her up a week ago with the understanding that I would reach out to my friends about finding a permanent home and that if that didn’t happen before I left for vacation, I would give her back.

I emailed photos to some of my friends with the announcement, “I am a foster mom” and included an explanation of Daisy’s situation. Then I set out to make her comfortable while establishing a few ground rules.

I bought her a few toys (which she ignores) and a fake fur lined bed (which she loves). I placed an old towel on the floor next to my desk so she could hang out with me during the day.

I placed a few chairs sideways as a barrier to my living room entrance. She found a way in once but seems to understand that the space is off limits unless I am also in the room.

I’ve come to find some of her pecadilloes oddly endearing.

She doesn’t like to walk on my hardwood floors (too slippery) or walk down my spiraling back stairs (also wood). Once her leash is attached to her collar, she’ll scamper out onto my deck from my kitchen then stop and wait until I pick her up an carry her down the stairs.

She doesn’t like to get wet. When we encounter a lawn sprinkler while we’re out, she’ll stop before placing one of her paws over the soaked sidewalk. I am resigned to tug at her leash until she breaks her locked gaze on the flowing arc and we can move into the street long enough to avoid any possible misting.

Daisy doesn’t like to be alone. She will follow me around my apartment. Every time I get up from my desk to get something from the refrigerator, or when I pad from my bedroom to the kitchen to get the teakettle going in the morning, she’ll shadow me. I think I understand her psyche. A pet must always keep an eye out for their person.

She’s followed me into the bathroom while I was showering. While never feeling like David Letterman when Margaret Mary Ray was stalking him, under the hot spray, I’d sense that I was not alone.

I would draw open the plastic curtain and see Daisy staring at me with her fluffy white head cocked, in poodle princess mode, wondering what the hell I was doing in a large tub with water pelting me from above.

And at night, I’d chuckle thinking that Rocky, the Flying Squirrel had nothing on Daisy, the Flying Poodle. Wanting to get in my bed in the worst way, she would stand up on her hind legs and leap up multiple times hoping to land on the top of my mattress.

Her legs are too short to manage this herself, and I have been unwilling to enable her by hauling her into bed with me.

I’ve made it a point, though, to sleep on the edge of my bed and place her furry futon along the same wall so that she could always see me and know that I didn’t disappear. How she has made a nest for herself in my bedroom has made me smile.

Knowing that someone wants to sleep close enough that you are the first thing they see when they wake up is no small thing.




If you live in the Chicago area and might be interested in giving Daisy a permanent home, I’d love to hear from you.

“I Am Free”

garbage truck rear viewIt must have been in the nineties on Saturday. It was more than humid. The air was so sticky, being outside felt like my skin was just splashed all over with Coca Cola.

I left the comfort of my air conditioned home to run a few errands and, as is typical on Saturday mornings, traffic was just barely crawling along.

Not my favorite scene under any circumstances, what made things worse was that I was stuck driving behind a garbage truck. Even with my windows closed and the AC on, I couldn’t help but think, Whew! Did it smell!

I had started to swear under my breath. I was mad at the traffic, mad about the smell. Although I don’t usually follow cars very closely, I left an extra amount of space between my car’s front grill and the rusted steel jaws of the municipal compactor on wheels.

Leaving so much room, of course, pissed off the driver in the car behind me. “Can’t you see I’m behind a garbage truck?” I blurted out with corresponding hand gestures. I pointed to the view from my windshield as if this would elicit sympathy from the guy behind me and he would take a break from laying on his horn.

It took almost five minutes to drive from Sacramento to Rockwell, just three blocks. How much longer could this go on? replayed continually on my internal tape.

All of a sudden, I got the bright idea that I could turn onto a side street. I didn’t have to creep along Lawrence Avenue behind a stinky ol’ garbage truck!

Instead of being angry at what seemed to be in my path, I could re-choose.

I did. Then I executed a series of additional turns and resumed heading in the direction of my first planned stop.

Just two weeks earlier, like most everyone, I observed the Fourth of July with music, a few beers and fireworks.

Several years ago, I spent the holiday at a retreat in upstate New York. Along with people from all over the world, I was invited to turn to the person next to me and declare “I am free!”

I know the date is celebrated because of political freedoms, but you don’t have to be part of the Shawshank Redemption cult to know that your civic life is only one aspect of being free.

Looking people in the eyes and proclaiming, “I am free” stirred up a powerful and memorable moment for me. I felt fully present and grounded in my Self.

What you do for a living, or where you live, or who you spend time with can be energizing or draining or even numbing. Remembering that you brought yourself to a particular situation with the best decisions you knew how to make represents a good first step towards being okay with what is.

Then, recognizing that if you’re not happy with something, you can give yourself permission re-choose Is a great awareness.

Turning down a side street rather than following a garbage truck, even one heading in the direction you intend to travel, is no small thing.



streetlamp 1Images are evocative.

Sometimes, I’ll struggle with feeling that the best images have all been co-opted by Madison Avenue for a logo or a marketing message. For example, it’s hard to look at a red umbrella and not think about Travelers Insurance.

I’m still drawn to certain objects because of how they make me feel. Whether a high-tech halogen model or a faux gas lamp made of twisted black iron, a streetlamp will quickly conjure up memories or impressions.

When I see a streetlamp, I’ll first think about one of my favorite parables.

In the story, a pedestrian sees another man on his hands and knees at the foot of a streetlamp, crawling around in a state of deep concentration. Being good natured and helpful, the pedestrian asks why the man is in such a position and finds out that he lost his keys.

Soon, he joins the man on the ground, getting on his hands and knees, brushing the palms of his hands over the concrete. After 30 minutes of unsuccessfully searching the area, the pedestrian asks the man, “Where do you think you lost your keys?”

“Down the street,” the man replies. “But the light is much better here.”

This response amuses and befuddles me. It’s an all too true quirk of human nature that we’ll look for something where we’d be least likely to find it.

Maybe people will choose to look for something in a place strictly because of the familiarity of the place. Or maybe people like to be deluded by a little bit of light. They like to think that in the illumination, good fortune is shining down.

Of course, I have other associations with streetlamps.

To me, the sight of a streetlamp is a sign of civilization. I don’t like driving on country roads. Even well marked two-lane highways can unnerve me. They’re full of unanticipated dips and bends.

Without streetlamps, I’ve decided, there’s just not enough illumination to navigate at high speeds.

While traveling away from a city, flicking on my car’s high beams, I’ll tell myself that I only have to see 1000 feet ahead of me at any moment. But I won’t feel completely at ease until I get on an interstate and can see a ribbon of silver beads shining above the road.

In my neighborhood, the streetlamps seem like unacknowledged guardian angels watching over me when I walk home. They represent an odd sort of constancy. They’re easy to forget about until they don’t work.

When I was growing up, I remember playing games on the street with the neighbor kids during long summer evenings. I’d pay attention to the sky turning different shades of orange as the sun sunk in the horizon. I’d wave to my dad as he drove up to our house in his white Ford Galaxy. And I’d wait for the streetlights to go ON.

I wanted to be outside. I wanted to catch the exact moment when the streetlamps went from OFF to ON. More credible than any clock, this is what told me that daytime had crossed into nighttime.

Maybe this is why streetlamps are special to me.

Being able to use an everyday object to envision so dramatic a change, going from OFF to ON is no small thing.

Making it YOUR Garden

gnome in gardenI pass the Petersen Garden Project’s Global Garden almost every day. I’ll step up close to the wire fence when I walk home from the post office or grocery store and look at the new growth.

It’s become fuller since I moved into the neighborhood three years ago. There are many more 4’ x 8 ‘ Pop-Up Victory Gardens in their space along Lawrence Avenue.

I imagine new urban farmers have spent quality time digging and watering in their Vedgewater garden (in the Edgewater neighborhood) and their Ashlandia garden (at Ashland and Hollywood) too.

The other day, when I was looking between the twisted wires of their fence, I saw a garden gnome, an elf-like statue. I couldn’t help but break into a smile.

These gnomes are sort of funny-looking and endearing at the same time. Very much in line with a German, St. Nicholas tradition, usually the figure will be a white bearded man wearing a long triangular red cap. There’s a myth that gnomes help work in the garden at night, but I think their placement in a garden or on a front lawn is mostly about the homeowner or chief gardener.

So, I found myself smiling at the little man. After all, he had big ears and a silly-looking beard. I also was taken by the thought that people naturally want to set themselves apart from others.

I don’t know exactly how many plots there are — a lot — and they all are largely similar. An urban vegetable garden will usually include different types of lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, maybe zucchini or carrots. It only stands to reason that a little figurine will help the gardener find his plot quicker over an unmarked plot.

I thought about my mother’s habit of looping a silver ribbon around the handle of her standard issue black suitcase so that she could spot it more easily when it found its way to a baggage carousel after a flight.

But there is another dimension to the impulse to plant a garden gnome near the beginnings of a pea plant.

I remember an old Mae West saying; something like “A man kisses like his signature. The face I forget, but the name, I remember.”

In so many ways, we have opportunities to put our personal stamp on how we show up in the world. Some of us might choose to do this by how we dress or by getting a tattoo. Others might choose to add a favorite quote to the close of their emails.

Maybe we’re all the same in wanting to be unique. I know a few people for whom I don’t think standing out as an individual is important, but I’d say that if not memorable, most people want to feel they’ll be remembered.

I felt this when I caught sight of the garden gnome on one of many 4’ x 8’ raised plots. I could tell that the gardener wants to enjoy his time in his garden and that he wants to make his small patch of earth HIS.

This touched me.

Anything that strengthens the feeling of owning your own life is no small thing.


Taking it to the Streets

street performer evanstonAs I walked down the street, blocked off from automobile traffic for the duration of annual summer festival, I saw a crowd gathering in front of a funky consignment shop.

Crowds are interesting phenomena. Something a little out of the ordinary happens. Someone stops to observe it and then people gather around the original observer to see what they’re looking at.

Of course, I had to see what everyone seemed so interested in.

It turned out to be a street performer.

He was a tall thin man. Youngish; probably in his twenties. He wore a small black mask with a hook-shaped beak like you might have seen worn by a jester or costumed lord at a masked ball in the 17th century.

He surrounded himself with the tools of the trade; a giant ball made of a ceramic or some sort of hardened material strong enough to hold his weight; a small fire (oddly set up for some level of control on a high-tech metal tripod); and three black cones of an unknown material.

His main trick was balancing himself on the ball while juggling the three cones, glowing with short streaks of golden flames at their ends. Taking very small steps, careful not to fall off, he’d carefully roll the ball away from the curb then back again.

He did a few other tricks, all with large exaggerated gestures. Like a mime, his schtick involved no words. Occasionally, he’d enlist the help of a small child who, unafraid of his mask and the fire, stood in front of the crowd.

What would make someone want to perform this way?

Maybe he collected a few dollars for his troubles. Maybe he had a more elaborate clowning gig and this was a chance to try out new material.

I couldn’t help but feel something special for him; for anyone who takes something they love doing to the streets. To be seen. Or heard. Or…..

How many times have I stood mesmerized by the percussive virtuosity of the Bucket Boys, now a Chicago institution? They can be routinely heard drumming on upside down white plastic buckets just outside of major sporting venues or high-end department stores.

And I remember when I was traveling in Spain a few years ago, coming out of the subway and hearing a guitarist playing a Beatle song while sitting against a low tiled wall near the stairs. He probably wasn’t expecting to bring home money, but maybe he wanted to feel differently than he does strumming and crooning his favorite songs alone in his room.

Musicians on a subway platform, jewelry makers at holiday gift show, or masked jugglers at a summertime street festival – they inspire me.

Sometimes, I’ll think about keeping this blog as taking it to the streets. Five years ago, I started recording little essays about things I am grateful for as a practice for myself. I’d like to have an audience for my writing, and I’d like more people to consider how appreciating little things can change their lives.

I might try different things to call attention to what I’m doing thinking that maybe a crowd will gather. Then I’ll come back to the commitment I made to myself, to have a gratitude practice and wanting to express myself IN THE WORLD. Thinking about expressing your best self matters.

Doing what you love as a public expression, whether you have an audience or not, is no small thing.

Someone’s Smiling

smiling outdoor potteryNot expecting to find parking any closer to the festival, I decided to park on Elmwood and walk towards Main and Custer. It was over six blocks, for sure, to the churros stands and white tented booths where local artist-preneurs were talking up their work.

Usually, it seems that retuning home or to your car after an outing takes a much shorter time than getting to a destination. It’s as if anticipation can’t make your footsteps move fast enough when you’re going somewhere and time speeds up when you have nothing particular that you’re looking forward to.

When returning to my car, after a few rain-free hours at the Custer Street Fair, it seemed that an opposite law applied. It seemed to take much longer walking back to my car.

It was as if instead of fighting anticipation, the return trip just took longer because I was in the mood for LINGERING.

Both sides of the street were parked up and I may have walked a little slower not wanting to overshoot my car, but I think my pace had more to do with how much I enjoyed the sight and smells that came along with being no place in particular.

My friend would stop with me. We’d peruse the few wares on display on a front lawn as part of a yard sale or marvel at some kind or architectural element which was no longer fashionable.

“Look at the turret on that house,” we’d remark.

Then we came across a yard where assumed old hippies or artists lived. The owners had a tire decorated as a horse hanging from a tree, a most remarkable version of a swing, and in a mild state of disrepair near their front stairs (badly in need of a coat of paint) were two neutral colored planters – one depicting a face and the other just a smile.

We both wanted to take pictures. We were charmed.

Whether the contents of these pots were watered regularly or even if they held only good old Midwestern dirt, I loved the idea of smiling planters.

I loved thinking that people walking down the street, whether they noticed them or not, were being smiled at by slightly upturned clay lips.

What if everyone imagined that someone was smiling at them all the time?

I am conscious to look people in the eyes as I pass them. Sometimes, I consciously try to smile. It’s a very small gesture. I want to let people know I can see them. Even if I am preoccupied, I want to project my best energies to the world.

But there was something special about the experience of discovering these smiling planters.

Maybe this is some sort of self-centeredness, not just about their overflow of good energy, but when I see someone smile at me, I think they approve of me and it elevates my mood.

I got an idea of a game to play with myself.

I decided to imagine the world was full of yards with smiling planters, most of which I couldn’t see. but they were smiling all the time. Smiling at me, smiling at everyone. Remembering the surprise of tripping across these planters walking down Elmwood on the way back to my car made me happy.

It’s great to feel the blessings, the approval of someone else, or even being seen at a soul level. It makes you smile too.

Letting a smile from a random source help you generate your own smile is no small thing.

While Waiting

whole foods parking lotI was flaming mad.

I had brought my car to the dealer specifically for them to explain why the check light on my car’s dash had gone on. I assumed the car was ready for an oil change even though I barely put on 3000 miles since I got it in December.

After dropping off Donatella Corollo (I like to name my cars), I walked over to a nearby Whole Foods where I bought an ice tea and slipped outside. I found a table and chair in a open air space between the store and the parking lot and opened the book I brought with me, prepared to kill a little time.

In practically no time, I got a call on my cell phone from the dealer’s service department. “We changed your oil and rotated your tires,” they said. “…But we noticed your check light is on. Do you want us to look into that?”

Although I knew the mechanic calling me now was not the man I first spoke to on the phone, I was livid. “That’s why I brought the car in! I went over all that on the phone and again at the counter when I checked the car in.”

I continued to get agitated when the mechanic started reviewing prices for performing different types of “recommended” maintenance. (It looked like my $50 oil change was going to turn into a several hundred dollar visit.)

My brain hadn’t quite kicked into rational mode where I could ask questions about the necessity for the procedures I was being quoted when I looked up from my phone.

I saw that a small bouquet of roses, fanned out and full, casually elegant in a clear Mason jar, had been placed on my table. I looked up and down the small apron of concrete that separated the store from the blacktopped parking lot. There were jars of flowers on every table.

My anger seemed to dissipate.

I proceeded to ask the service tech a few questions. I wanted to know whether his recommendations came from general guidelines or whether they were based on an inspection of the car.

As I decided what work I wanted done, I put my book down…and I marveled at the orange roses at my table.

The edges of the roses were darker than their hearts, than their inner flesh. They appeared to be weathered by the sun and humidity but very full of life.

Each flower seemed to hold multiple colors. The ones on my table were orange, but within that orange they were almost red at the edges of the petals and almost pink at their center. Their contours went from coral to salmon to something darker.

I had to stop and think. Some of the most beautiful moments in my life seemed to happen unexpectedly while I was waiting for something else.

I remembered how I saw a young girl wave at me from the back seat of a car her father was driving  (Wave, October 2013). I noticed her while waiting for a traffic light to change. I remember marveling at the patterns in my travertine bathroom tile as I adjusted the faucet, waiting to find the perfect showering temperature.

Maybe that’s what beauty is. When you’re not obsessing, when you are being open and present, whatever your attention settles on naturally, somehow, is what is beautiful to you.

Noticing where your focus goes while you are waiting is no small thing.


Listening to My Refrigerator

inside refrigeratorOkay, I fell for the gag – the first time I heard it. I must have been a teenager.

I remember my conversation partner growing serious and very quiet for a few moments. He seemed intent on listening for a particular sound, coaxing me in into a state of silence as well — as if I was supposed to notice something.

After a time, he blurted out, “Is that your refrigerator running?…. You better go catch it.”

I was embarrassed that I was reeled in to a false state of alarm. He cracked up laughing. I’ll think about this joke as I’ll contemplate how I think about my refrigerator now.

For some reason, I use my refrigerator as a sort of barometer, as a reflection of my psyche.

I’ll look at the inside or outside of this often taken for granted appliance, and I’ll ask myself what’s it trying to tell me?

Last week, I noticed that my shelves were pretty empty. An immediate thought could have been that I needed to buy groceries. But I stared at the glass and plastic shelves for a while.

I saw purplish rings where a jar of preserves had been moved several times. The low inventory made it a perfect time to empty all the contents and give my fridge a good cleaning. It made me think of times when I wasn’t busy with work; how I could use quiet times for other types of projects.

Sometimes, I’ll notice periods when I open and close the door a lot. When I’m not even hungry. What is this about? I’ll ask myself. I decided that opening the door was like looking for distraction. If I thought about it, I was hungry for something, but it wasn’t necessarily food I was looking for.

Or, there are times when I’ll notice that I’m stocking a certain brand of beer when I don’t care that much about beer. I do this in case I might find myself entertaining and want to have something someone else would like. Seeing this, of course, makes me wonder why I don’t make special efforts to stock my refrigerator with things I like. Then I’ll ask myself what I can do to satisfy my own needs.

I remember a time when I was barely scraping together a living. The contents of my fridge pretty much consisted of a carton of eggs, ketchup, Tabasco sauce, a block of cheese and a liter of seltzer. When I visited my sister or friends, I saw that their refrigerators were full.

They had deli meats and fixings for salads. I could see a couple thick cut slices of yesterday’s meatloaf or some luxury items like shrimp or olives that didn’t come out of a can.

It made me ask myself why I wasn’t nurturing myself. It wasn’t just about staying within a budget for groceries. The contents of my refrigerator told me that I was not putting much attention into taking care of myself, into nutrition for my body or making things I liked accessible.

Certainly, people can ascribe meaning to things that don’t have any inherent significance. I know I don’t have to rely on my refrigerator to tell me something I might not be completely conscious about. From time to time, I can simply look at something around me, or at a current situation and ask myself What’s this about?  

What is it about my circumstances that is an out-picturing of something I’m holding inside?

I love that I can look at anything around me and contemplate that it can teach me something about myself.

I know there’s a saying, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but understanding that a refrigerator can be more than a refrigerator is no small thing.

Sending Prayers

prayerflagsJust yesterday, I attended a special chanting and meditation program for sending prayers to people who have been affected by the earthquakes in Nepal.

The tiny, remote country was rocked by violent tremors on April 25th and again on May 12th. Thousands of people lost their lives. I can’t imagine the devastation and confusion, the anxiety that the whole country is living with now, from Pokhara to Katmandu, over whether the earth will tremble again in the coming weeks.

I had visited the country many years ago. I was 23. I was returning to the States the long way after an extended stay in Nanjing, China.

When thinking about my time in Nepal, I remember a joyful sort of incongruity. I had to learn not to hold expectations and to be delighted by what presented itself.

While feeling a little like royalty between the luxurious carved wood walls of the Hotel Yak and Yeti near the Himalayas, there were times during the day when I couldn’t use electricity or take a hot shower because they rationed power in different sectors of town at different times. Taking cold showers by candlelight was kind of fun.

At the Fish Tail Lodge in Pokhara, I had the most beautiful view of the Annapurnas but didn’t feel like hiking because I was battling some local intestinal bug that made me think straying away from a toilet was a bad idea. Fortunately, the incredible mountain view was entertainment enough.

Whether in the valley, or around tourist spots in Katmandu like the Monkey Temple or Pie Alley, the locals were very welcoming and full of life.

I felt a little ashamed, considering I had a personal connection with the place, that when the quakes occurred, I registered the events in my mind as tragic but didn’t respond with an action.

Yesterday, before we began chanting, as I formulated a prayer in my heart for the healing and long-term well-being of my brothers and sisters in Nepal, I thought about how fortunate I was.

As I closed my eyes, I imagined colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind, hanging from strings cast from every spot in the world. The strings were tacked to trees and rocks, hospitals, homes and schools in this special country.

Chanting and meditating with the intention of sending love to those who were hurting filled with me gratitude. That this feeling welled up in me was not so much about feeling fortunate that I have never experienced the earth shake underneath me.

Having this event serve as a focal point for formulating and sending prayers prompted me to get out of my own head and habitual preoccupations. It led me to ask myself what I can do for others. I felt grateful that I could do something for this situation even if that was only sending a check.

I also felt a subtle shift in me. I seemed to feel more certain about this than ever.  I was reminded how we are all meant to support each other. I considered that if I was suffering, people who I didn’t know might send me heartfelt prayers for my pain to be eased, for my life to be restored.

Knowing that in sending prayers, and in considering aligned actions, you are participating in a community without boundaries is no small thing.



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The Future is NOW

wrigleyfieldbox ofcI blamed the humidity – as if a rise in dew point could addle my brain. Despite the overcast skies and unseasonably cold whether, the calendar page told me it was May, and I had been encouraged by the young team’s come-from-behind fighting spirit in April, so I decided I had to act NOW.

I went to Clark & Addison, to the Cubs’ ticket windows, and dropped $400 on tickets.

I know the friends I will invite to join me for the three games will pay me back when we go, but it seemed to be uncharacteristic of me to lay out money for something I won’t get to enjoy for weeks or months.

Still, I felt the future is NOW, and I had to act.

I knew that I might not get to watch the Cubs against the Brew Crew in August unless I bought tickets now. I thought about reveling in the afternoon sun, sipping Old Style from a plastic tumbler and complaining about how garish the new Jumbotron looked next to old green scoreboard.

And what if the Cubs actually make the Cards work for their division title this year? Won’t I be glad at the end of September that I saw them squaring off In July?

I thought about times where I delayed leaving my house because I had a inkling that traffic would be bad…

Or the last time I planned a European vacation. I followed guidance even more compelling that Rick Steves’. Besides visiting popular attractions, I chose to spend time hanging out in specific neighborhoods, which turned out to provide some of the highlights of my trip.

There seems to be a tension between living in the moment and making arrangements to be satisfied at some future point. But maybe The Power of Now and The Future is Now mindsets are really not so different.

We all seem to listen to that voice inside (or choose to ignore it) to different degrees.

It might tell us to take an umbrella as we head out for the day, or encourage us to call someone, or check out a store we haven’t been to in a while.

The more we see these subtle notions play out in the world, the more we build confidence in this voice. We learn to believe in ourselves at a different level when it actually does rain during the day we listened to the voice that told us to take an umbrella, or called a friend at a time when they needed encouragement, or found something perfect for our taste at a store we hadn’t patronized in a while.

While I don’t buy lotto tickets expecting that some sort of hunch will translate into a financial boon, I do try to pay attention to ideas that seem to come to me from out of nowhere. I give attention to ideas that come back after having other points of focus (careful not to obsess), and I will reflect on physical sensations and try to understand what they might be telling me.

I am glad I can exercise this capacity of feeling my way into a decision. I am glad to be learning how to trust my intuition more and not confuse its guidance with wishful thinking.

Being willing to act on in the moment clues and opportunities that can only come to fruition in the future is no small thing.

The Call of Springtime

yard sale signA friend recently tried to impress me with an overlooked factoid.

“Did you know,” she began, making sure she had my full attention, “That the expression ‘okay’ is the same in every language?

I wonder if ‘YARD SALE’ is almost as universal. At least in the Midwest, in my neighborhood, it seems to be the call of springtime.

Yes, in May, everything seems lush and green. Tall irises and tulips, in veritable rainbows of colors, seem to burst out of the ground at once.

But early sightings of blooms can be followed by cool nights, so I’ve chosen not to consider the season officially launched until homemade signs announcing ‘YARD SALE’ or GARAGE SALE,’ punctuated with directional arrows, appear at street corners.

I’m not big on shopping in general, but something about seeing my neighborhood decorated with such signs makes me happy.

I guess I like the thought of people doing spring cleaning; knowing that others have taken stock of their lives (in objects) and decided they could part with some things to make room for something new.

Maybe I also like the thought of people basically making money out of nothing. I like the idea that there can still be value in something that has already given years of service.

These yard sales can run the gamut in terms of quality of merchandise and sophistication of sales methods.

Often, old metal folding tables will be piled with designer handbags, which a member of the household paid too much for years ago and won’t be able to offload now at their asking price.

Sometimes, items will be meticulously tagged with prices (to lend a head start to the inevitable haggling process), and at other sales, untagged items seem to suggest a more casual attitude about the process. A table of unmarked salt shakers, for instance, seems to beg Make me an offer.

Sunday, my neighborhood was full of signs, full of sales. Having one day a month or in a season for lots of people to run their sales makes the area a good destination for yard sale adventurers.

As I roamed around Sunday, I saw an abundance of kid clothing and toys. Not of particular interest to me, still, I like the idea of finding new homes for things in good condition. The bikes, or Onesies® on display were simply outgrown.

I like how you are expected to bargain. Maybe I would try to reach a deal if I was buying a car, but there are few situations in our culture when negotiating the value of something feels appropriate.

It’s kind of funny to haggle over a few dollars (or pennies), but it can be fun to play the game. A buyer has to ask herself, What’s it worth to be able to call it mine? For a seller, the question becomes, What’s it worth to get rid of it?

Shopping is a completely different experience when you don’t have an agenda like you do when you have to buy something to wear for a wedding or need to replace a water heater. Buying something at a yard sale is about wanting to have something, not about having to.

But the thing I like best is the incidental conversations that spring up as you peruse the merchandise. It’s hard not to look at Flintstone jelly jars (juice glasses), or Dora the Explorer lunch boxes, or Andy Williams Christmas albums, or even ashtrays from Bob Chinn’s Crab House and not want to swap stories about growing up or dating or house moves.

Finding the memories of your life in someone else’s garage or on their sale table is no small thing.

A Date to Remember

expiration dateIt seems that I am always adding chicken broth to a dish I’m preparing. I am a big fan of slow cooking and have whipped up great jambalayas or different kinds of soups and stews in my Crockpot.

Planning on firing up my old Rival the other day, I checked my cupboard for ingredients.

For what I planned to make, I bought fresh celery, onions and bell peppers from Harvesttime. I also needed allspice and bay leaves, red wine and chicken broth, which I expected to find in my kitchen.

I pulled out a couple boxes of chicken broth from the rotating plastic storage shelf under my counter. I looked at the expiration dates marked in the little white square at the top of each box.

One was marked January 15, 2016. The expiration date on the other box was a date in March, 2015; barely two months ago.

A had a small dilemma.

Should I throw the box with the expired date out? It was not even two months past the date.

I called up the store where I bought the product. Though the clerk didn’t want to give any advice that might lead to legal liability, she reminded me that the dates did not actually reflect a product safety standard but rather was intended to suggest a freshness guideline.

The broth was simply pronounced “best quality” if used before such and such a date.

I decided to open the recently expired box first. I didn’t want to waste anything that might still be good.

I remember my mother sniffing leftovers from the refrigerator when I was growing up; food baked in a rectangular Pyrex dish covered with aluminum foil or a serving of something stored in Tupperware.

We had come to count on the whiff test. We believed that one whiff could determine whether a secondhand meal was still worth eating or whether, as we used to say in our household, it had degraded into a science project.

I poured some broth from the box marked with a March 2015 quality date into a glass measuring cup and took a whiff.

While it didn’t smell and wasn’t cloudy, I decided it was sort of dark, a brownish gold rather than a yellow gold, and I held off pouring the liquid into my Crockpot. What kind of chicken made this color of broth? I wondered.

Then I decided to open the other box of broth and poured some into a different glass measuring cup. It was a much lighter color. I sniffed them both. I studied the variation in color again.

Then I poured the contents of the first box down the drain followed by warm water from the tap.

I decided that using chicken broth from the first box would probably not make me sick but that it was not worth the $1.99 to angst over it. Besides, didn’t I deserve broth with a “best if used by..” label showing a date in the future?

I don’t normally pay much attention to food labels but took a few moments in my kitchen to contemplate them.

Some people rely on labels regularly to note sodium levels or ingredients that they might have allergic reactions to. These kind of warnings are not intrusive but can make life a lot easier.

Following date stamping and other guidelines printed on food items long stored on a pantry shelf, not to mention paying attention to your intuition about what would feel good to consume, is no small thing.

One Man’s Ceiling…

water damage ceilingA couple days ago, at just past six in the morning, I was awakened by the sound of loud stomping coming through my ceiling. Not an unusual occurrence.

The couple that live upstairs have two young sons who seem do everything LOUDLY.

Whether they’re running down the hall or yelling, they can make my walls tremble and the pendulum lamp that hangs over my dining room table shake.

I understand that kids need to play and expressed to their parents that I have no problems with noise when they come home from daycare, but at 6:00 in the morning. Come on!

I have asked the parents to try curtailing the noise between 6:00 and 8:00 in the morning a few times since moving in, but the morning revelry in my building hasn’t changed.

After pretty much giving up on the idea that my upstairs neighbors cared anything about me, I decided to ask for a little consideration again this past Saturday.

I pointed out that, as parents, they probably set rules about safety and that their kids are one year older than when I first asked (and maybe more able to take instruction).

In an exchange of emails about the problem this past weekend, the father admonished me for trying to bully them into moving. I told him that I didn’t want anyone to move. I just wanted the halls to be quieter at 6:00 in the morning.

I remembered another incident shortly after moving in. An HVAC contractor came to the building to check on each unit’s AC system. He must have knocked lose a coil in my upstairs neighbors’ unit. It blocked the drain where condensation went and water started leaking into my utility closet.

I brought the problem up to my neighbors and they had the HVAC contractor come back and correct the problem. I made no threats, but I asked them what happened, what the contractor told them, and whether they had noticed water pooling on their floor before I told them about the leak in my ceiling. They chose not to respond to me.

Between the kids’ morning stampedes and this incident, I couldn’t help but think about the Paul Simon song, “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor.” Apparently, my upstairs neighbors didn’t get the memo.

As I exchanged emails with the father this weekend, I observed my own thinking and behaviors. They were complex. I often paused and edited what I wrote before hitting the SEND key. ( Thankfully.)

At first, I was angry. I felt dismissed, as if my point of view and experience was not being taken into account. I also felt sympathy for them, living with two young sons in a two-bedroom apartment with loud, wooden floors. I also wondered where the impulse to try to resurrect the subject came from after being shut down before.

In the flurry of emails that passed between us this weekend, I felt very much immersed in the beauty and messiness of being a human being. A good thing.

I wanted to be able to stand up for myself, but I also wanted to get along. I wanted to think that I could still talk to my neighbor – even after disagreeing on what a good parent would do in this situation.

And I thought of the famous quote from Rabbi Hillel

          “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Despite having once told me that his sons do not take NO for an answer (He explained they’ll often do the opposite of what is asked of them), mornings have been a little quieter these past few days.

Speaking up for your own interests and finding a way to live peaceably with your neighbor (not to mention getting an extra hour of sleep in the morning) is no small thing.

Over in a Flash

I was so excited.

For years I have wanted to see the ducks march in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Outside of Graceland, this is probably one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.

They march from their palace home on the hotel roof, taking the elevator down, then are escorted by a red jacketed duck master, like a circus ringmaster, into the travertine marble fountain in the opulently decorated great room.

They march down to the lobby each day at 11:00 in the morning and are escorted back to their palace home on the hotel roof each day at 5:00.

Knowing this could be a standing room only affair, my friend and I got to the hotel early enough to take a quick look around the roof of the hotel. We managed to get back to the lobby just as it was starting to fill up with camera-toting tourists.

I couldn’t believe our good fortune. We got the last two seats at the lobby bar and had an ideal view of the grand march. (We also found the perfect spot for indulging in a Peabody’s special okra topped Bloody Mary).

The Peabody Hotel is a wonderful old hotel with an incredible history. The first Peabody was opened in 1869. At the time, it was considered the grandest hotel in the south. After years when it served different functions (It served as a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic), it was re-opened in an even grander Italian Renaissance style in 1925. It even had air-conditioning.

In 1932 the general manager and a friend (a ringmaster from the Ringling Brothers circus), after a night of drinking, put live duck decoys in the lobby fountain as a prank. The guests fell in love with them.

A tradition was born! Trained Mallard ducks occupy the fountain during the day now. Before each procession, a duck master, wearing a red jacket with gold braids on his shoulders, tells the story of the Peabody Hotel and explains the history of the duck march.

At 10:45, comfortably sitting on tall stools at the bar, we studied the duck master as he announced the imminent arrival of the ducks. His voice was clear and booming. He spoke with great pomp and affection for the tradition. He sounded as if he was introducing the Queen of England or some such dignitary.

Hotel guests and other visitors got their cameras ready and moved to the edge of their seats in anticipation. The duck master then introduced an eight year-old blond girl wearing a peach dress and a matching bonnet. It was her birthday, and she was designated to preside over the final steps of the duck march.

The duck master handed her an official-looking certificate and a scepter with a carved wooden duck-shaped handle. And then — at precisely 11:00 — the elevator doors opened and the five mallards waddled towards the fountain, hopped up a short set of red-carpeted stairs, and jumped into the fountain.

It was all over in a flash.

I snapped several photos but they failed to capture the moment. Thankfully, my friend did a little better at photographing the blur of the ducks ascending the red stairs and then jumping into the water.

It made me think. Aren’t we all living like tourists walking on this earth? We want to capture images of things we expect to be beautiful, but we also want keep our eyes open for scenes of unexpected wonderment.

And then, it’s over in a flash. The scenes we try to imprint in our memories or even our lives.

We can’t possibly take pictures of everything. We can’t fully take in everything that might be remembered as precious. But we can remember the love we feel in any moment — the sense of being fully present.

Being present to witness a great tradition or an eight-year old girl’s birthday celebration is no small thing.

duck in lobby

Where There’s Smoke

smoker central barbecue 2Where there’s smoke….

The standard second part to this saying is, of course, THERE’S FIRE.

In Memphis, a more appropriate conclusion would be…There must be barbecue….

I just returned from a long weekend in this city on the Mississippi. Yes, of course, I made a pilgrimage to Graceland. I saw Isaac Hayes’s peacock blue Cadillac spinning on a revolving turntable-like floor at the Stax Records Museum. I walked by the infamous balcony at the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. King was gunned down. I mingled with other blues loving revelers on Beale Street and caught an incredible sunset over the great river, rendering Arkansas as golden as the Promised Land in a Charlton Heston movie.

But the most memorable thing about my trip was that the smell of barbecue was everywhere. Like lingering over one of the fine Bloody Marys they serve at the lobby bar of the Peabody Hotel, I’m in no hurry now to throw my clothes in the washer and remove that sweet, smoky smell.

I relish the experience of travel, of going to a new city or country and wandering around.

I’ll usually do a little research before a trip and think about things I want to do in my limited time (sort of like making a bucket list for one’s life but not as serious). And I’ll usually leave a lot of unscheduled time in my itinerary so I can follow in-the-moment impulses.

I researched Memphis barbecue as soon as reservations were made. I consulted Top 10 lists online as well as TripAdvisor and asked friends who had spent time there.

After spending my morning at Graceland, I dragged my traveling companion to the original Central BBQ. As they explained on their website, “It’s where the locals go.”

Open since 2002, their meats are dry rubbed, then marinated for 24 hours, then slow smoked with hickory and pecan woods. Their meats are never sauced in the pit.

It was well after 1:00 when we drove up. The lunch line was still trailing out the door. While my friend saved our spot in line and started to ask regulars about their favorite menu items, I parked the car and approached the diner from the back.

There, I saw it. The place where the magic happens. The smoker. It had a homemade look, like something a twelve year-old would put together for the science fair. Small pieces of wood were piled up to the side.

And I thought about all the rushing around I did in the days leading up to my trip. I thought about all the attention I’ll give to making a To Do list and cramming in as much as I can in a day.

And I remember taking some time to study the smoker behind the kitchen of Central BBQ. I thought about how much I enjoyed talking to the other people waiting in line. I loved how no one rushed me when I discussed choices of side dishes with the counter staff. And I took my time to enjoy my ‘cue sitting on the patio sipping sweet tea under a gentle April breeze.

Fully committing to go SLOW is no small thing.

What Makes this Seder Different…

Alaska fod Alaska TS 038.jpgLast Friday, I attended a Seder. A couple days before, I joked with friends that I was going to celebrate the ritual dinner commemorating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt with real Jews.

Those who know me know I was raised as a Lox’n Bagels Jew (I identified with the culture but didn’t speak Hebrew or was particularly observant of traditions). I had participated in Seders before but expected one held in an Orthodox home would be a very different kind of experience.

The Hebrew word “Seder” translates to “order.” I was struck by how much my initial reaction to the special meal and self-conducted service felt anything but orderly.

One of the traditions is the asking of The Four Questions. This, in itself, is a bit of a puzzle. There aren’t actually four different questions. One question is asked four times and is given four different answers.

The question is: “What makes this night different from all other nights?”

I couldn’t help but ask myself “What makes this Seder different from all other Seders?”

The traditional question has different answers that all refer to escaping from bondage and enjoying the life of free men. My question, “What makes this Seder different from all other Seders?” has different answers but all seem to come back to my notion of “order.”

After receiving the invitation, I asked my host when I should arrive. She told me that she lights candles at sunset and that her family starts the Seder about an hour afterwards.

I didn’t know what to make of this information. It was not like being told to come at 7:30. Was I supposed to come for Sabbath candle lighting or just for dinner? Apparently, it was for me to decide.

The leader of the service didn’t pass out copies of the same Haggadah to everyone as I was accustomed to, clearly marked with passages to be read by assigned individuals.

Haggadahs were distributed to anyone who wanted one, but there were maybe eight different versions. The idea was that you would pick out the translation that suited you and would follow the proceedings that way.

While there was a leader for the service, everyone was invited to contribute comments or questions, insights or observations.

As I looked around the room, everyone seemed to be doing their own thing.

The Seder leader read the text in Hebrew very quickly. My friend’s father, affectionately referred to as Zadie by everyone (grandfather) sang songs of the holiday, not concerned with whether anyone was listening. Guests shared thoughts about writings that pertained to particular Passover traditions.

One of the children sitting at the head table, presented his understanding of the 10 Plagues, which, according to the bible, was to demonstrate the power of God and persuade Pharaoh to let the Jews leave Egypt. He displayed representations of each plague, throwing fake lice and miniature frog-shaped toys across the room.

This Seder didn’t look like order to me.

Then I looked at the room from my heart. Everyone had so much love and respect for each other. Everyone followed their inner guidance. We all probably took a few moments to silently gather our thoughts and form prayers about how we wanted to spend the holiday the following year.

Maybe that is the truest meaning of why people celebrate the holiday. As free people, with faith in God and respect for others, we can create our own order -– one that is satisfying for ourselves and encouraging to those we love.

Seeing twenty-five people sitting around a dining table, each following their own impulses and giving everyone else space to follow theirs is no small thing.

New Growth

hair clippings2I got a hair cut the other day.

Tina, who I have been seeing for a few years, kept me waiting an unusually long time. Under the pressure of her fingertips on my scalp and the tickle of lather around my face, my irritation at having to wait melted away during the shampoo.

Intoxicated by the smells of the salon (fortunately no one got a color job that day), with my wet hair piled on my head in a towel turban, wearing one of those loose fitting maroon smocks, she led me to a chair.

As if on cue, she asked me the same questions she always asks, What would like me to do? How much do you want me to take off?

My answers are pretty predictable, although I like being asked.

“Just a trim,” I responded. “It doesn’t matter if you take off a half-inch or more. I just want my hair to look fuller. I want it to hang better.”

As she gathered the top layers with clips so she could start trimming the hair by my neck, Tina tried to engage me in light banter.   “How’s work?” she asked “Do you have plans for the weekend?”

I glanced at the floor and watched as strands of damp hair fell to the tile. I began to think about cutting my hair, or releasing anything, as a way to make way for new growth.

Just this past week, I could see growth in different ways.

I have been going ahead with plans to take a vacation with a friend. Not really a big deal, yet in the past, always worried about money, I might not have made such a commitment. It used to be harder to trust that work will be around when I am done taking time for myself.

I had been contemplating working with a coach to help me reach some personal objectives. I met with someone and decided not move ahead with her because I trusted my feelings that we were not the best possible match.

…And I had an encounter with my ex and his new girlfriend at a social function. While I’ve been clear in my own mind that I wish him well and have known that he’s been dating, this encounter made the idea of moving on very real.

Encounters with my ex always seem to bring up a complex mixture of feelings. I genuinely want him to be happy. Oddly, I found it very easy to talk to him and his girlfriend about what was immediately in front of us. We remarked on how to find the chunks of avocado hidden at the bottom of the salad bowl and opinionated on whether the wine available at the gathering was any good.

But I still get upset thinking about times during our relationship when he didn’t treat me very well. I felt like I had come a long way, but I suppose I still have more letting go to do.

With each snip of the scissors, and each feather of hair that fell to the floor, I thought about how my trimmed hair will hang better and frame my face more attractively. I thought about how some things have to be cut away in order for new growth to take place.

Having an image to act as a metaphor for the benefits of letting go is no small thing.

Love…From an Unexpected Place

loverope 1A few weeks ago, I got an email from out of the blue. A young man, a student from Germany, saw an article I wrote on Tiny Buddha. It led him to check out my blog.

I have been posting journal entries about small things that spark gratitude in me for almost five years. Initially, I just hoped to develop a regular writing practice and train my mind to dwell more on positives than on problems, but the practice of looking at my life with the expectation of seeing something I love in each moment actually changed my life.

I wanted to share what I learned and started contributing occasional articles to other blogs. I hoped that, like Christian Mauerer, others would take note of the blog’s url in my byline and check out my philosophy, tips, and examples of everyday things I have chosen to give attention to and appreciate.

Each week, I have taken a lot of pleasure in reflecting and then writing a post about something that touched my heart. I drafted tips on how people could see things they cherish that are already in their lives. But I have often wondered if anybody ever read my musings.

Sometimes, I have felt very discouraged by the disparity between what I want to bring out in the world and the number of people who have explored what I have to say on my blog.

…And then I got a seemingly random email from Germany. “Why am I writing?” the sender posed.   “…Because I see how much love you’ve put into making this world a better place…”

Oh my God, could it be that someone who I don’t know can really see me? Can the writer of this unexpected correspondence recognize my intentions and value how, in my own way, I am trying to empower people by giving them practical tips for uplifting themselves?

As I continued to read Christian’s email, I saw that he was on a mission himself. Both spiritual and commercial.

He invented a product called Loverope, which he sells online. A LOVEROPE is a bracelet consisting of a small stainless steel disk and a thin cord. The disk is hand stamped with the word LOVE or another short phrase that conveys hope or inspiration.

I was thrilled by the idea of this. In his words, by wearing a Loverope, you are reminding yourself “what’s truly important.”

We began to correspond. It turned out we both shared a great affinity for Eckhart Tolle. We both practiced yoga. I confessed to sometimes feeling blocked by past failures. In his introduction, he sent me a link to a YouTube video of Steve Jobs, Dare to Ask. Steve Jobs was definitely someone who inspired him a lot.

He asked me how he could help me. He has already helped me a great deal – purely by the example of his life. In addition to our emails, I read about him on his blog.  In explaining the mission of LOVEROPE, he writes:



To sell you anything, I am here to represent the ideology of love. Love is patient, love is kind. Love is louder. Always.


Connecting has been a wonderful, unexpected journey. He has reminded me of the nobility of trying to put your best into the world. Much greater than the power of the Internet, I feel the Law of Attraction at work.

We might have been introduced by a blog we both like and, regardless of the facts that he lives in Munich and I live in Chicago and am decades older, we connected because we both understand that LOVE is at the core of everything.

We might all have careers and personal goals, but everyone’s life purpose is to love and inspire each other.

Christian Mauerer reached out to me, unexpectedly, with a simple greeting and offer to help, one human being to another -– and that’s no small thing. Und das ist keine Nebensache.

The Gospel (According to Mavis)

Mavis-2_-300x300-150x150I’ve always had a strange relationship with gospel music. Being raised in a Jewish home, I simply felt uncomfortable with lyrics that celebrated Jesus Christ, his disciples, or their stories.

But I loved the sound of it. I loved to be surrounded by towering walls of human voices. Pure and spontaneous. Vibrating with life.

Have you ever seen a gospel choir? The singers might have well-trained voices and scores of music, but there is always room for spirit to express itself in a natural, unrehearsed way. They move when they sing because they’re moved. Their songs come from a very deep place.

I might have enjoyed the O’Jays or Ray Charles or R&B artists who developed their early musical chops in church, but Mavis Staples was the one who really helped me reconcile my passion for the gospel sound with my discomfort over songs based on bible stories or aphorisms.

I got to see her perform for the first time last week. Seventy-five years young and still busy touring, I joined a multi-generational crowd at a veritable love-fest at a mid-sized auditorium just outside of Chicago. It was nice to see that her collaborations with contemporary artists like Jeff Tweedy still makes her relevant to new music lovers.

Funny, professional, humble, and appreciative, she exuded joy at being able to perform. Her voice, she understood, is a gift and a privilege; pitch perfect, full of raw vigor and heart.

She brought her sister Yvonne, who no longer performs, on the stage for a few moments. It was as if she wanted to share the stage with her, as if she wanted to share a little of the adoration.

She told the story of why she moaned when she sang, probably for the thousandth time, and it still sounded inspired by the moment and drew a laugh. She led the audience in cheering on members of her band after each one showcased their individual talent on their instruments. She was completely generous.

She obliged the audience’s yen to hear classics like Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There, and she did an amazing cover of the Talking Heads Song, Slippery People. It was hard to believe the song was not original to her.

The way she sang, it embodied everything I loved about gospel music without the affectations that often made me uncomfortable. Unlike David Byrne’s version, it was not only clever, it was felt. “Turn like a wheel (He’s alright). I see his face (The Lord won’t mind). Don’t know no games (He’s alright). Love from the bottom to the top…”

I think my favorite song was one I don’t recall having heard before although it was on a recent album. It was a new song, a perfect example how anyone at any time in her life can come up with something new. It really spoke to me.

“I looked in the mirror. What did I see? A brand new image of the same old me. Ohhhh. But now I wonder why I should be surprised…I like the things about me that I once despised….”

I looked up the dictionary definition of gospel. Of course, there are entries related to the life of Jesus Christ and bible stories. “Gospel” is also defined as being something that’s true.

In an interview given during the seventies, on the TV show Soul Train, Pop Staples, Mavis’s father and bandleader for years, explained that gospel music was about “love, peace and freedom.”

Capturing those qualities in a voice itself, something beyond lyrics to a song, is no small thing.




Photo from North Shore Center for performing Arts website


Hidden Spaces

massage room 2After complaining of too much time spent at my desk sitting in front of my computer, a friend advised, “You need a massage.”

I knew this was true although it felt more complicated.

I wanted a good massage, a good experience. It had probably been about 2 years since I last paid a professional to knead my flesh and although I’ve often found it hard to spend money on myself, I didn’t want to take a chance finding a masseuse through a massage school or by cashing in a Groupon.

I also knew that I didn’t want to deal with driving to a practitioner who would put me in a very relaxed state only to lose it in the course of driving back home.

My mind started to run a montage of images of storefronts I’d pass in the course of conducting errands on foot. Was there someplace in my neighborhood?

Then I thought about Bloom, the yoga studio I visited many Monday mornings for Gentle Yoga with Karen until I got busy with work projects.

I seemed to recall they had a massage room. I barely peaked in. It had all the necessary elements; darkly colored walls, a massage table, a small boom box, a stool, a couple candles and pump bottles of oils.

I checked their website (they had pretty extensive options for massage) and chose a therapist from among five bios. Considering that I might not want to leave the room right away, I booked the last appointment on Thursday evening.

The therapist asked me all the usual questions. What did I want her to focus on? Was I experiencing pain? I explained that I spent too much time at my desk and, almost apologetically, went on to admit not moving my body enough lately.

She was serious about her work. She took a few moments to get grounded before oiling up her hands. She checked in with me periodically on the pressure of her touch.

When on my back, she was ready to place pillows under my knees and, when lying on my stomach, she adjusted the headrest. Sort of ambient sounds, like chimes, played quietly in the background.


A little slip of a thing, barely a hundred pounds, I wondered how she was able to work on much larger bodies. While she spent most of our time on my lower back and hips, she also took a few minutes to hold my skull in one hand and then let it drop into her other hand. She massaged my hands and slowly manipulated her fingers between my toes.

It was great to feel the knots in my back untangle and my whole body elongate under her long strokes, but I almost liked the small attentions best of all. I probably don’t give much thought to the spaces between my fingers and toes. I felt much more alive when every part of my body felt open.

After dressing, she asked me if I had any questions. I explained the predicament of someone who sits at a desk at a computer all day.

“If you can’t get up and walk,” she said. “Periodically, just breathe consciously. Take a couple deep breaths. Let in all the air you can on the in-breath. Let it out slowly. Just when you think you’ve let out all the air in your lungs, if you’re really tuned in, you’ll find you can squeeze out more. Let it all out.”

Discovering a retreat for rejuvenating bodywork that’s only six blocks away, remembering to feel into the spaces between my fingers, and knowing that on any exhale, there’s always more air that can be let go are all great reminders to value hidden spaces.

Knowing that what you need might be hidden – in plain sight – begging only your conscious awareness is no small thing.

Close to the Action

bulls game sidelinesThe other week, my brother-in-law called and asked me if I wanted to go to a Bulls game. Kind of unusual, I remembered thinking as he doesn’t have season tickets or even a history of splurging occasionally on seats from a ticket broker or event website.

“My banker gave me two seats for Monday’s game,” he went on. “They’re on the first level and should be pretty good.”

Any type of tickets to a game involving a team I root for would be accepted as good fortune. Free tickets constitute an even bigger boon. A seat this close to the action — a perspective from which I’ve never seen a game before — well, it’s hard to describe how elated and lucky I felt.

Even knowing that I would have to wear a special lanyard so security would recognize I belonged in the section and knowing that waitresses came to the section during the game to deliver food and drink orders, I was not prepared for how privileged I felt. I couldn’t have imagined the view.

Better than just being on the first level in a stadium that seats over 18,000, it turned out that the seats were in the second row right behind the Bulls bench.

As they warmed up, the players jumped rope and practiced spotting up for shots from a shorter distance than between my kitchen and living room windows. I found myself smiling during time-outs as I felt like I was practically in the huddle with them as plays were drawn up.

My favorite player, Jimmy Butler, team workhorse and rising star, sat maybe 12’ away – when he actually was given a breather. I was close enough to hand Pau Gasol, all seven feet of him, Gatorade labeled towels from a well-stocked bin. It was probably the only thing closer to the team than I was.

I wanted to stand up during the whole game and take pictures or simply bask in the thrill of being where I was. Then, I’d start to worry about disrupting the view of the fans behind me, not to mention spilling my margarita which was parked in a plastic tumbler near my feet.

Wow! And I couldn’t believe how much faster things seemed to move from such a vantage point. It gave me a greater respect for the athletes, for their hand-eye coordination, for their conditioning, for practically communicating to each other telepathically.

Teammates had very short windows to dish off the ball before a passing lane closed up. I noticed hand checking that went on constantly and players being very physical with their guarding assignment all the time, not just on called fouls.

From this vantage point, I could also see how truly nice of a person center Joakim Noah is (he indulged a pack of thirteen year old girls and posed with each of them as they took selfies on their pink I-phones). I could see how much players wanted to rush off the floor after the game so they didn’t have to answer a reporter’s questions when they were too tired to talk.

This spectacular seat was a great gift that afforded me a new perspective on the game. It was also a great reminder that I am always close to the action.

I am always close to the action of my life, to whatever is happening around me at any given moment. Sometimes, a new experience or looking at something from a different angle might jog things up so I can take in things I don’t normally pay attention to. I might not get to sit in the second row at the United Center again, but I can always remember to pay attention to what’s happening around me.

Remembering that you’re always close to the action (of your life) is no small thing

Sick Day

sick bedI don’t seem to get sick often. Working at home as I do, I am not prone to catch whatever seems to be going around the office or am susceptible to strange strains of viruses that you can count on finding you if you spend any time passing through O’Hare.

And, living alone as I do, I am not likely to be a victim of Familius Streptococcus, the endless passing back and forth of an infection between family members or roommates. But it’s not like I’m totally immune either.

The stresses of planning and throwing a party the other week, a few nights without much sleep, and let’s not forget the brutal winter temperatures – and it shouldn’t have been surprising that I started to feel a tickle in my throat the other day.

Oh this is terribly bad timing, was my first thought, as if any time to get sick is better than another time.

I started to ruminate over strategies to nip the congestion, achiness and fatigue that was taking hold of me in the bud before daring to admit having a full-blown cold.

I perused the shelves of my medicine cabinet, careful to read the expiration dates on the colorful plastic bottles of Nyquil and tiny boxes of Ibuprofen that probably were not cracked since last winter. I started popping zinc lozenges. I looked in the back of my freezer for any forgotten Tupperware containers of chicken soup.

In the morning, I did my best to clear my calendar for the day. I made the few calls I had to make right away and checked for any emails, marked in red, awaiting a quick response. Then I decided I had no choice but to surrender.

I made a cup of hot tea and placed it on a cork coaster on my nightstand. I rolled my bedroom TV towards the center of the room in case I felt like observing some afternoon Jeopardy. I found the novel I had been meaning to finish and tossed it near my pillow.

I decided I was going to spend most of the day in bed.

My feet, stuffed snuggly in my sock slippers, came to bed with me. I resigned myself to spend the immediate time ahead of me watching mindless game shows, reading a fictional character’s story, and dozing off.

I stopped thinking about my current project, cleaning the house, and pulling papers together for tax preparation.

It’s hard to let go of thinking that you have to be doing something. It’s hard sometimes not to think that your will is supposed to outshout what your body is trying to tell you. It’s especially hard when you work for yourself – to take a sick day.

Ah, but it’s so good when guilt takes a holiday. I had to smile at myself because I decided to listen to my own higher wisdom. I actually honored my impulse to make taking care of myself my first priority.

Allowing yourself a day to spend in bed reading a novel and drinking hot tea, is no small thing.

Beyond Six Degrees

montana's paintingWalking between buildings and the el this past weekend, re-wrapping my scarf around my neck, I kept thinking that it was the coldest evening imaginable. Then I thought about a night in December when I talked a couple friends into checking out a gallery where a friend of ours had some of her paintings on display.

More than seeing my words floating in vapor as I spoke, as evidence of the inhospitably extreme temperature, I even hated the feeling of slipping into my friend’s car because the leather seats never seemed to warm up.

But it was the last weekend of Montana’s show, and we couldn’t imagine NOT GOING.

Montana was a special friend who passed away a few years ago. Her boyfriend shipped pieces for the Lill Street Gallery exhibit from northern California where they spent her last years.

Standing at around 4’10” tall, it was funny that she always seemed larger than life. She had the unusual talent, by the example of her own life, to give people permission to do what they wanted to do. After she made a little money in real estate, she basically painted every day in her studio under her apartment, listened to opera on WFMT and ran a cooperative gallery.

A veritable pioneer in the now trendy Bucktown neighborhood, it was artists like her that made it a cool area to make your home or open up a café.

Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world.

I know Deb (one of my companions on our frozen art adventure) from Montana because Montana went to the School of the Art Institute with Shari whose boyfriend (later husband) lived on the same block. I know Nancy (the other third of our trio) because she worked for the same company as my ex-husband and mutual friends from the engineering firm introduced us.

Now Deb and Nancy are good friends. I can claim some responsibility for this (and gladly will) as I invited Nancy to a regularly meeting book group that Montana ran maybe 20 years ago.

You get the picture.

An electrician might think of connectors as small pieces of hardware that keep a circuit going. Whether networking in the business world or navigating purely social relationships, we generally rely on the people we know to make our circles bigger. Then it’s up to us to build and sustain relationships.

Some relationships are for life. They grow and change as you do. Some relationships only seem to last a short time, and others slip away for different reasons over time.

As we looked at Montana’s paintings, we tried to recall when particular ones were done and confessed wondering whether any of us might have shown up as a shadowy, unnameable figure in one of her acrylics. At the moment, I wanted to thank all sorts of people who were no longer in my life but who served as a vital connector.

I tried to trace the lineage, the beginnings, of other relationships. I asked myself where I knew different people from. Who introduced us? Over what did we bond?

Okay, I haven’t had contact with my ex for almost 30 years, but I could thank him for bringing Nancy and a few other people into my life. There are many other people who are no longer on my radar that introduced me to significant people or greatly impacted my worldview.

I feel like thanking them all.

Going to see the traveling show of Montana’s artwork and know that she lives on for me in the form of the relationships she helped me spawn made me think about this.

Remembering that even short-lived relationships live on in our interests or in other relationships is no small thing.


chair holding space on snowy street 2While I, like most everyone, was watching the Super Bowl, a third of the country was being socked with an incredible blizzard. Here in Chicago, as we were reminded by TV weathermen, the accumulation reached historic proportions. At just under 20 inches, February 2, 2015 marked the fifth biggest snowfall since we started keeping track of such things.

It was hard to fathom the immensity of this vertical milestone when so much of the white stuff seemed to be blowing side to side at gale force velocities. Fortunately, I only had to walk ¾ of a block to get home from where I enjoyed a wide screen viewing of the game and the very hyped 30-second slots advertisers doled out big bucks for.

Despite the short distance, as each step meant going knee-deep in snow, getting home took almost thirty minutes.

The day after, I counted myself lucky that I was able to work from home. I also considered my good fortune that I was able to take my time to shovel out the space between the back of my building and the alley.

For three days, venturing out was kept to a minimum, and, of course, I walked to as many places as I could because side streets in Chicago are very difficult for a car to navigate after a blizzard. During these short excursions on foot, I passed lawn chairs and buckets, large plastic flowerpots and laundry baskets that marked parking spaces where cars had been dug out…and where the person who cleared the spot hoped to return.


When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to balk at the idea of DIBS. The parkway belongs to everyone, I thought. How ridiculous to think someone has the right to a space because they ran the edge of a shovel over it!

In many neighborhoods, the issue sparks quite a controversy.

Although I would prefer to see everyone helping each other out and neighbors shoveling out their whole block together, I can identify with the idea of dibs and can appreciate how the tradition is honored on most city streets.

Just as even the most bad-assed outlaw in the Old West would probably not shoot a man in the back, some things are just NOT DONE. Call it deference to local custom. I can appreciate how, in most working class neighborhoods, you just don’t mess with the sanctity of two lawn chairs arranged six feet apart between snow drifts on the street.

You don’t marry your first cousin. You don’t do anything nasty to your upstairs neighbor’s noisy kids (even though you’ve thought about it). You don’t cut in line at a grocery store checkout or at a theater box office. You don’t steal a bicycle even though the seat is still attached and the bike has not been Kryptonite® locked to a rack. And you don’t pay marked prices at a yard sale. These things just aren’t done where I come from.

Yes, things can get unreasonably legalistic in our society. I’m not advocating any special type of protections that mostly protect the contract writers, but I am glad I live where the Golden Rule, “do unto others…” principles are generally honored and local customs mean something.

Whether you live in a Dibs or No Dibs neighborhood, living where you have an unspoken agreement about shared values is no small thing.


back porch at duskThe late afternoon view from my back porch reminds me that days are getting longer.

I noticed it the other day when I was meeting a friend for an early dinner. Driving west into a pinkish sunset at 4:30, I thought to myself, Wasn’t it already dark at this time just a couple weeks ago?

I felt oddly buoyant about this recognition.  Of course,  I notice this every year around this time, but this year, I felt compelled to look up the facts.

On Sunday December 21st, the official shortest day of the year, sunrise in Chicago was at 7:15 and sunset was at 4:23. By mid-January, sunset was at 4:47, and on March 1st, sunrise will be at 6:26 and sunset will be at 5:41.

I understand that there are always 24 hours to a day, but for some reason, knowing that moving towards more daylight hours seems like a natural cause for optimism. I’ll find myself encouraged by even the smallest incremental increase in daylight.

Over lunch recently, a friend asked me if I was happy. Not intending to deflect the inquiry, I still found myself circling around a direct answer.

I explained that I was more comfortable than I was several years ago because my financial circumstances have improved. I added that I felt less stress than I was experiencing a year ago when I was going through a break-up and was trying to find a new place to live. I was sleeping better and confessed I had gotten better at speaking up about my feelings when I would have kept them in at other times in my life. A healthy change.

I concluded that life was easier for me, but I could not, unequivocally, state that I was happy.

It was only a month ago that I wrote down some personal goals. Yes, I want to get out and hear live music more often and at some point, when I’m ready, I know I want to be in a partnered relationship again. I would like to bring my gratitude approach to more people, and I would like to make more of my income from what my heart wants to offer and not just from tasks I perform for a company willing to pay me.

If I looked at life as either having something I want or not having that thing, I could feel pretty stuck, but like considering the extra few minutes of light blue, then pink, sky between 4:30 and 5:30 in the afternoon as winter months move on, I can feel pretty content with things.

Any time you know what is ultimately desired, and you can see progress towards that thing, it’s cause for optimism.

Getting more of what you want represents the little victories of life. When things are faster, sweeter or sunnier, lighter, cleaner or easier than they were the day before or the last time you tried something, it’s worth taking a moment and celebrating.

Any movement in the right direction is no small thing.

Time of My Life

apollo 11I had just gotten home after a night with a friend enjoying the foot-stomping music of the Pine Leaf Boys.

On Friday, they played to a full dance hall of Midwestern fans knowing that they’d make it back to Lafayette in plenty of time to celebrate Mardi Gras Cajun-style; with a good pot of gumbo, old friends, and their favorite hooch.

Nicki and I had a great time. We enjoyed the music, swapping stories of pre and post-Katrina visits to N’awlins, and giving our full lungpower to answering the accordionist’s frequent cry, “Can anybody scream?”

When I got home and flipped on the TV, as is my habit, I listened to a local newscaster announce the passing of Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub. What a strange counterpoint to a fun evening out.

My mind swirled with incredible memories. What a terrific ballplayer! What a gentle soul!

Ernie Banks hit 512 home runs, played in 14 All-Star games, was named MVP two consecutive years, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. He was one of only a handful of players from the Negro league that made it to the Bigs without having to play in the minor leagues first.

Most remarkable, and unheard of in today’s world of free agency and Money Ball, he played with only one team for the entirety of his major league career.

He was an important part of my life as I grew up. Not only was he a great athlete, his “Let’s play two” mantra and “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game” catchphrase, while playing nearly two decades for a losing franchise, taught me a lot about appreciating life.

Late Friday night I felt like I had lost a friend. I was also filled with gratitude. I felt very glad I was born WHEN I was born. Thanks in large part to Mr. Cub, I grew up knowing the pure joy of baseball as a game.

I started thinking about other milestones or great events I witnessed.

My life was made easier when automatic transmissions became standard on cars. The invention of the birth control pill gave me freedoms my mother’s generation didn’t know, yet I came of age when sex was regarded with a certain level of respect and mystery I don’t see these days.

I was inspired by the individual daring of space pioneers on the Apollo missions (Could anything make you think about possibilities more than seeing someone walk on the moon?), and the image of the lone student in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Still unidentified, this young man stared into a tank to protest censorship. What courage!

I witnessed many gifts of flight; from the growth of airline travel (now almost everyone collects frequent flyer miles and feeds their curiosity to learn about life beyond their hometown), and I’ve seen Michael Jordan take off from the hardwood.

I developed what felt like personal relationships with cultural icons. I could comfort myself on sick days, from school or work, by watching hours of TV sitcoms. I really cared about Dick van Dyke and Jerry Seinfeld. I still look forward to spreading out and then reading the Sunday Times (curled up on my couch, maybe still in my jammies).

And of course, there were the Beatles and the Stones (before Mick had to rub Ben Gay on his joints after a show).

Being grateful for the many times of your life because the Time of Your Life is no small thing.

Mr. Cub sings


orange in handThe moment came unexpectedly. I was making a favorite recipe for beet salad. I roasted and cooled three beets, careful not to make an undue mess on my countertop for fear I’d inadvertently dye everything deep red, almost purple, in the process.

I sliced up the beets and added olive oil and found the plastic container of pine nuts the recipe called for. I peeled the navel orange, marveling at how tenaciously the flesh of the fruit clung on to its tough skin. Then I cut up pieces of the fruit on my bamboo cutting board and added half of the sticky orange pieces to my bowl of lightly oiled beet slices. I guessed at the proportions.

I gathered up a few of the remaining pieces of orange from the cutting board and quickly popped them in my mouth.

OMG – the word JUICY doesn’t even come close to describing the explosion of flavor. I could only think that the sensation made my mouth happy and that having such a surprise, such a sensory experience made all of me happy.

My mother never kept fruit around the house as I was growing up. My friend Laura Lee couldn’t imagine growing up in a home without fruit. She used to ask me jokingly, “What’s the matter? Was your mom attacked by an apple when she was young?” But it was true. I barely knew what fresh fruit tasted like until I was in my thirties.

So what brought on this moment of rolling my eyes under closed lids and smiling to myself?

Because I was relatively unfamiliar with the flavor, could it be likened to a first-time experience and the powerful impression one makes? Was I struck by the completeness of the moment? The air in my kitchen was infused with the sweet scent of the freshly peeled fruit.

I let myself be led by my impulse to abandon attempts at neatness. With no one looking, I ran my fingers over my cutting board, gathered a collection of dripping orange pieces and transported them into my mouth.

I contemplated my immediate reaction. Tasting the orange-ness explode in my mouth was about more than enjoying a pleasant flavor.

The experience was JUICY.

The feeling was like re-discovering painting after a long time away from holding a brush or finding someone so unexpectedly appealing that you can’t help but walk lighter and faster since he or she started to inhabit your thoughts.

JUICY is when you feel alive.

Winter has special moments, but of late, I’ve felt oppressed by the dryness of heated rooms or numbed by wearing quilted coats that make me move like the cartoon mascot Michelin Tire Man. I’ve felt contracted by the fear of slipping on ice or the idea that my car might get stuck somewhere.

The flavor, getting my hands dirty, the smell of something from a summertime climate – was just what I needed.

Feeling alive from a few bits of fruit is no small thing.

The More Things Change…

journalAt the end of November, I celebrated a birthday. When I announced the milestone at a small gathering, a new friend wanted to give me something to mark the occasion and found an unused journal among her things, which she presented to me. It was nothing fancy, but it called to mind my history with pen and paper and the different kinds of wire spirals or glue stripped spines that held pages of my thoughts together.

A couple decades ago, I kept a morning pages practice, in Julia Cameron style, and for a long time, I faithfully wrote in dialogue style, a conversation with Spirit, which I referred to as Talking with God.

Over the years, I kept simple gratitude journals. I also had special notebooks where I recorded insights gained after retreats, or I used journals to list the pros and cons of possible actions and think through decisions that way.

Sometimes, I wrote entries in fancy notebooks (often people gifted me blank journals because, as a writer, they assumed I would always be ready to fill the pages), and sometimes I wrote my thoughts on college ruled lined paper, which I would place in a three-ring binder.

Though I always valued the process of putting pen to paper and getting my thoughts down, I was undisciplined about how I organized my journals.

I didn’t reserve a place of honor for them. I didn’t store them on a specific shelf or in a brown corrugated box with JOURNALS marked with black Sharpie on the side. I couldn’t even say definitively where all my personal journals are.

There were often gaps in time from when I made daily entries to when I seemed to abandon the ritual only to pick up the pen years later. And I had a very sloppy way of dating entries.

I usually scrawled the month and date before an entry but often didn’t record the year, as if I thought that I would somehow remember the year based on the cover.

As 2014 came to a close, while I was re-arranging the contents of my guest closet, I came across a handful of old journals. One was from 2007. I wasn’t sure when the others were filled out.

I read a few pages from each bound collection, and still couldn’t tell when the entries were written. Maybe there was a different man in my life, or I had a different job, or I was into a different author, but my concerns and longings were always very much the same.

I wanted to feel I had creative outlets and receptive audiences for what I wanted to express. I wanted to feel connected to something greater than myself. I wanted to feel loved for who I was. My circumstances may have changed, but I don’t think my character has.

Many years ago, I took a workshop given by a successful area journalist. It was called, Writing to Save Your Life. I originally balked at the title. How arrogant, I thought, that people smitten with the urge to write would feel they had to record the details of their experiences, or they’d just die. Later, it dawned on me that “saving” one’s life was about preserving it, what was important about it, in writing not just, literally, about perpetuating it.

In stumbling across journals from different periods of my life, I could bemoan the fact that most of my preoccupying concerns remained constant. I could interpret this as a failure to move on from one thing to the next thing. But I’ve chosen to look at this, “the more things change, the more the stay the same,” as the best understanding to have.

Seeing your life in your journals’ pages this way is a special blessing.

Seeing that you are becoming more of who you already are is no small thing.

Bright and Shiny

lecrueset potIt was a bit of a burden, carrying a half-wrapped box containing a cast iron pot home from a downtown office party on a crowded el car, but any other commuter on my car could tell I was so proud of my parcel. Despite being weighed down, I wanted them to read the label on the box. Le Creuset.

Receiving the fancy cookware (in red, my first color choice) was a surprise — and yet not. One of the organizers of this year’s holiday luncheon at the company where I contract most of my work got the idea that instead of doling out coupons or gift cards, wrapped presents would be given to every core associate. A few weeks ago, she emailed a catalog link to everyone. We were told to pick out two or three choices and see what Santa might come up with.

Some people received IPad Minis and others opted for jewelry (much easier to carry home on the train).

While I offered an alternate suggestion, I was really happy to unwrap my big box in front of the whole office and see the heavy oval shaped pot and lid. I had to wonder why the gift made me so happy.

Okay, I’m not from a large family with a big Christmas gift-giving tradition, and I did get some extra pleasure from the whole ritual. The president of the company, wearing a red velvet Santa’s hat, read out names on gift tags and individually handed out wrapped boxes. The gifts were given on top, not in lieu, of holiday bonus checks, and I didn’t have to angst over getting anyone a gift and worry about choosing well.

But I think the biggest pleasure stemmed from the fact that I always wanted such a nice piece of cookware, but probably wouldn’t buy such a thing for myself.

Yes, a Le Creuset comes with a lifetime warranty and can go from stovetop to oven to trivet in a buffet line, but spending in excess of $200 — for a pot – I wouldn’t even think about it.

A few years ago, I posted about how charged I was when the local grocery store chain ran a promotion, You’re a Winner. They gave away different sizes of professional grade aluminum cookware in exchange for stamps customers collected based on cash register receipts.

They were rewarding customers for their patronage. It wasn’t as if they gave away the cookware for nothing. But when I turned in my stamps and got a wok (with cover), it seemed like an unexpected boon. I felt so lucky.

This was different. It felt more like a true gift; something I personally valued and didn’t have to do anything to earn. The pot was red, bright and shiny. It came to me attractively wrapped.

I like the thought of entering a new year with the image of my red, enamel coated, timelessly elegant soup pot in mind.

Trusting that the universe can give you something bright and shiny and new – something you might have not imagined or thought of getting for yourself is no small thing.


soldier ornamentI don’t know what it is about the Christmas holiday, but while many of my friends wax on nostalgically about family gatherings they remember from their childhood, or how they first learned the truth about Santa Claus, this time of year drives me into feeling a strong sense of lack.

Normally, it’s very easy for me for me to think about how small things fill me with gratitude. (I get happy and excited when I catch a bus or discover a forgotten sweater when I clean out my closet.) I tend to look at all sorts of experiences as gifts. But having to actually give gifts trigger old feelings of not being good enough.

I get self-conscious about what I can afford to buy people in my life. I’ll worry about leaving someone out who (I find out later) buys something for me, and I’ll worry about whether a gift measures up to what is expected from me.

The angst I experience around the annual gift-giving ritual seems to be intensified because it coincides with end of year performance reviews, another opportunity to contemplate worth in the eyes of others.

I felt a lot of pressure this year about making a nice Christmas for my youngest niece. Months ago she announced her disappointment over my sister deciding to go on a South American adventure cruise during her first Christmas break from college.

I can’t compete with my eldest sister when it comes to cookie baking and exercising her credit cards in Emma’s behalf. I know holiday gifting is not about competing, but putting pressure on myself to please someone I love seems engrained.

I wanted to do something for her that my sister couldn’t and her father probably wouldn’t. I set out to install a Christmas tree in the living room of my new home and give her the opportunity to decorate it. Not having had much of a personal tradition of collecting ornaments and decorating a tree and not wanting to drag a fresh tree up to the second floor of my building myself, I was surprised to find this part of my goal easier than I thought.

I announced to a few friends that I wanted to have a tree and, like magic, everything I needed came to me. Nancy remembered having a small artificial tree stored in her basement and Nina offered the use of her ornaments and lights since she was on an out of town work assignment and had no plans for them this year. I don’t know if this qualifies as recycling but I felt good about re-purposing things that would have stayed stored in boxes.

Only a week before Christmas, I invited Emma to have dinner at my place. She seemed less interested in hanging wooden Santas and angels on my faux pine branches than with having a nice meal with me, regaling me with stories about how well she did in her classes, and watching TV with me on my couch.

She wasn’t taken by the efforts I made to get her a Christmas tree. I suppose at one time, I would have chosen to be more disappointed. She did seem to appreciate a home-cooked meal and the chance to introduce me to a favorite comedy special that she was able to stream into my living room.

I was in high anxiety in the days leading up to my performance review. I am a contractor, not an employee, but I derive most of my income from work performed for one firm and, at times, feel insecure about my prospects despite having an 8-year relationship with the company.

I put my concerns in writing before talking to the person that doles out assignments. I didn’t get a rate increase, but I did receive the same bonus as employees and during our discussion, my contributions to the organization were validated. We agreed to have more frequent conversations about my prospects.

It felt like another experience of recycling. I was recycling my assumptions about not being valued because no offers of employment were made, and I received very little feedback from them during the natural course of performing work.

This Christmas, maybe I didn’t get what I wanted, but I got what I needed. I found myself enjoying the decorated tree in my living room despite not getting the reaction I might have wanted from my niece. I didn’t negotiate a new fee structure with my primary client, but I aired some concerns that will make this type of conversation easier.

Remembering to do things for your own pleasure is no small thing. Honoring your feelings by putting them in writing and then asking for a conversation is also no small thing.


International-Tokyo-Gift-Show-Spring-2011-9I didn’t have a lot of time, but I received my complimentary passes by email, as I do every year, and felt compelled to carve out a few hours on a recent Saturday to visit the One-of-A-Kind Show at the Merchandise Mart.

The public expo features uniquely designed, often hand-made, jewelry, clothing, and decorative home accessories. The prices tend to be premium, but it’s so nice to see the inventiveness of the artisans on display and shop for special gifts you would never find at a department store.

I had barely walked down the main aisle towards a booth featuring hand-felted scarves and hats when I found myself staring at a woman who was obviously trying not to lose her friend in the crowd. She could tell I was staring at her. Her face looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it. Then it dawned on me.

“Nicki?” I muttered as I stepped forward.

“Debbie?” she said, matching my tone of amazement.

We played together as children (our parents, in fact, were close friends), but I had probably not seen her for at least 15 years. Even in high school, we knew some of the same people, but we didn’t hang out together.

We started talking, catching up as holiday shoppers buzzed around us. One of her older sisters died recently. She got divorced. She was still a signer, an interpreter for the deaf.   I told her where I was living and that I was still writing. We confirmed who from high school we still kept in touch with. We exchanged business cards.

We both agreed that the other hadn’t changed at all. We promised each other to try to get together soon. Then we parted.

She texted me during the week. “How about meeting up Saturday night?” After not getting a response right away, she texted again to ask for alternative suggestions.

Last night, after errands, I drove to her house in suburbia. Over homemade soup, bread, and chocolate mint pie for dessert, we exchanged feelings and perspectives. She had two grown children and pretty much stuck to her first profession. I was single most of my adult life and did many different things for a living. She lived past O’Hare Airport, and I made my home within the screeching sounds of the el train. What could we possibly have in common?

We commiserated on how technology was changing our work prospects, shared thoughts about growing up in our respective families (dispelling many misconceptions we had about each other), and talked about sex after 50 and our shared affection for basketball and foreign films. We discovered we both looked at the other in terms of her strengths.

Before I headed back to the highway, we saw that it was the right time for us to get re-connected. I could drag her to concerts at the Old Town School of Folk Music and she could have me over to cocoon in the glow of her projection TV. Maybe we’d watch some basketball.

It was obvious that we both wanted to spend time with people like ourselves – people who tried to be true to themselves and were willing to take some risks to accomplish this.

Was it simply chance, coincidence that we re-connected at this time? Maybe all of life is like a giant GIFT SHOW. We can either spend our time looking for what we came to find or simply looking, wandering through the experience with our eyes wide open and our hearts willing to make connections.

Recognizing the face of an old friend in a crowded exhibition hall and only days later sharing bread and soup and stories is no small thing.


The Perfect Pour

salt shakersWhen I moved to my new place last spring, I had to buy some basic household necessities. In the process of combining households with my sweetheart in 2012, duplicates were eliminated and choices were made based on quality and level of attachment. We used my guy’s garlic press (an easy to clean, ergonomically designed OXO model) and kept my teakettle because it was a gift from a good friend of mine.

After we decided to separate, we came up with a financial plan and an agreement on household items. Many things just stayed with the house we shared. Some items just seemed to go with the place or didn’t seem worth the trouble of moving. In making myself feel at home at my new address, many trips, bar coded coupons in my sweaty fist, were made to Target and Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

Buying some items required little thought. (Come on. Are there any significant options on a paper towel dispenser?) I deferred buying some items until I found exactly what I was looking for (like the right colored towels for the bathroom).

I was surprised that finding a set of salt and pepper shakers I liked was such a challenge.

My first inclination was to buy a uni-shaker, a modern Plexiglas design where peppercorns would be loaded on the bottom and granular salt on the top. The peppercorns would be ground by turning the top third of the device and the salt would just pour out through the six holes in the metal top. Or, at least, I thought that’s how it was supposed to work.

I turned the damn thing upside down, shook it up and down and no salt came out. I took it apart and stuck the ends of toothpicks in the holes to make sure they were clear. I placed a couple grains of rice in the top chamber to guard against humidity gumming up the works. (I read this tip somewhere). Still, nothing came out.

I studied the metal holes on the top of my shaker. Certainly a tiny, tiny grain of salt should be able to pass through, I thought, but after scrambling up eggs and mashing up a pot o’ spuds and shaking my heart out, no sodium chloride imparted its usual brightness and flavor to what I prepared.

After several weeks, I gave up. I used the device as a pepper mill but found myself reaching for the navy blue cylindrical container with the girl holding the umbrella any time I wanted salt. I’d pour some into my hand and flick maybe a quarter teaspoon into whatever was on my stovetop; a very inexact way to season things. Unable to pour excess salt back into the container, I poured a lot of salt, followed quickly by hot tap water, down the drain.

The other week, at Homegoods or BB&B, I saw a set of shakers I thought would work; a pair of white owls of some sort of ceramic material. Not too big, nor too small. Not flimsy, but not expensive. I bought the set, eager to fill them and test them in my kitchen.

I should have known something was amiss based on how hard they were to fill. When I turned the saltshaker over, pulling out the little plastic plug at the bottom, and tried to fill it with salt, the salt just ran out of the three holes at the top. I thought I was being clever by placing Scotch tape over the holes while I filled it, but I replicated the problem once took the tape off and held the shaker over a plate of food. The holes were so big, salt just poured out.

I had to laugh at myself. I got caught up thinking that I could easily identify a device that would provide the perfect pour.

I thought about Goldie Locks sampling porridge and testing out the firmness of the beds at the home of the three bears. She always seemed to find things too something before declaring something suited her.

Maybe coming across something that is perfect, and believing you will know at first sight, is just an ideal. Even when it comes to finding a perfectly pouring saltshaker, some experimentation is in order.

Being willing to find your heart’s desire through trial and error is no small thing.

Celebrating the Everyday

pancakes and baconI celebrated a birthday this past weekend. For several days, cards arrived in the mail, mostly poking fun at the process of aging and regaling the virtues of friendships that, like fine wines, improve over time. I organized an outing to a jazz club that many of my gal pals opted in on. Perhaps not their favorite form of entertainment, as birthday girl, getting to choose for the group is a privilege I delight in.

I bought myself a new sweater — not from a thrift store. (I actually had to cut the plastic tags off.) I shared the honors of blowing out the candles that topped a birthday cake with a friend whose birthday is within the same week.

Ah rituals, I love them. They bring life to a very feeling level. They circumvent information that often cloak more important things and remind you that it’s okay to feel sad or excited or hopeful. HUMAN.

Several years ago, I started a habit, a ritual, which I conducted before meals to celebrate the everyday. I don’t know why I stopped observing this ritual, but I brought it back this past week when I decided to honor a craving I had to eat pancakes.

I microwaved a few slices of thick-cut bacon (a rare indulgence) and mixed up a bowl of pancake batter using eggs and milk and oil; the real deal. I tossed in a few dried cranberries.

After I arranged the bacon and pancakes on my plate (and poured on some real maple syrup), I stuck a small candle in the top flapjack, lit it, and began singing Happy breakfast to me.

At different times, I’ve stuck candles in omelets or burgers or potatoes or meatloaf, lit them and belted out Happy dinner to me, or Happy lunch to me. Associating the special occasion tune with something I usually do without any thought seemed to bring me to a new level of appreciation for the everyday.

When people think of having gratitude for little things, it still often revolves around something turning out in a pleasant way like choosing the grocery store checkout line that moves the fastest or grabbing a parking space on the same block as your destination or finding a place for a good $15 haircut. I know I’m often on the lookout for small boons.

But being grateful for small things and celebrating the everyday is more fundamental than this. It’s about seeing everything as God, or everything as Consciousness or energy. Maybe you have your own words. EVERYTHING is part of LIFE. Being alive is cause itself for celebration.

LIFE is a constant stream of different experiences, not just a highlight reel. I want to remember to take gratification from showing up for the work, growing from my experiences, and to feel grateful for being part of the dance.

I’ve been sad lately. I’ve noticed feeling regret that I’m not where I want to be. Sometimes I wonder why I haven’t fully taken on habits and beliefs that would serve me better. It’s easy to forget that each time I fall short and begin again, there is a new understanding of myself that actually takes me closer to full expression.

I think I really like the ritual of singing Happy Breakfast (or Happy Dinner) to me because the ritual reminds me to celebrate showing up for everything.

Making time to sing amid the joys and disappointments — the messiness of life — is no small thing.

Why Do Men Paint on Ceilings?

ceiing at chicago theatreLast month, a friend visited from New York. As a good host, I tried to think of things she might like to do. As a sort of ambassador for the city I love and have called home most of my life, I tried to think of experiences that were patently Chicago.

Of course, I took her to The Bean, Anish Kapor’s 66’ long reflective steel sculpture (officially named Cloud Gate), which is a featured attraction in Millennium Park. We took a slow walk down Michigan Avenue, one of the great shopping streets in the world, and had a Chicago style hot dog, complete with Day-Glo green pickle relish.

I took her to dinner at a small plates style tapas restaurant in the South Loop and to a concert at the Chicago Theatre.

Designed by the Rapp Brothers and built in 1921, the 3600-seat auditorium was the biggest jewel in the Balaban & Katz chain of movie theaters. The sign at the State Street entrance is a six-story high marquee, simply with the letters C-H-I-C-A-G-O running down.

Supposedly, some of its interiors were modeled after the palace at Versailles. It features a grand staircase and incredible French-themed murals. Its renovation in the mid eighties, costing over $9 million, did nothing to diminish its grandeur, although its days as a movie palace were over. In 1986, it became more of a hall for concerts and special events.

As we took our seats in Row C of the lower balcony, I couldn’t help but look up at the ceiling. I was amazed by the image of three horses pulling a chariot. It was impossible not to ask myself, Why do men paint on ceilings? and the natural follow-up, Why would someone paint on the ceiling of a theatre?

The immediate answer was simply that it was a style of the times. Movie houses in the 20s were large spaces and the owners wanted patrons to be impressed. After all, they were about to experience a new type of entertainment (cinema) and should be a little in awe.

Décor-wise and for the sake of visual balance, it would probably look off-kilter if a large auditorium, with richly colored seats and carpeting, had only a vanilla sky above. But the image of the muscular horses and fearless charioteer was stirring. I might expect a church gathering would look up towards heaven for a little inspiration, but in a theatre, especially after the lights are dimmed, I’d expect most people would direct their gaze to the stage.

Why would there be such a mural on the ceiling of the Chicago Theatre? Strictly as an element of décor? Because it was the style of the times? Something to distract patrons until the show started?

Although the practice of painting on a ceiling is old, I can’t help but look at an impressively decorated aerial expanse and not think about when the idea was new. What was it like for an audience member to see such a thing for the first time?

That’s what art does. It reminds us to consider things that have not been done before. A theatre is as good a place as any to remember this.

Maybe the best question is not Why do men paint on ceilings? but Will we ever run out of new ceilings? Will we ever lose our capacity to take a fresh look at what can be done and create something that hasn’t been done before? I hope not.

Being inspired by an old work of art because it represents artistry is no small thing.


selfcare sketchI just had a car accident. I shouldn’t say just — as in minutes or even hours ago — but it seems so fresh, it’s hard to believe it didn’t just happen. Although the event occurred days ago, the few short seconds it took between feeling in control of a routine driving maneuver and realizing my air bag had deployed has been replaying in my mind a lot in the days that followed.

The twisted metal, fragments of black bumper and loose brick from the building I hit became immediate evidence that I had survived something very ugly. That I was able to get out of my car on my own volition and wasn’t injured beyond a few scratches on my hand (I guess from the air bag blossoming so suddenly) was a minor miracle. That no other car or pedestrian was harmed was another reason to celebrate my good fortune. That the veteran policewoman that wrote up the report only issued one ticket (she could have cited me for an overdue license plate renewal) was another reason I should have counted myself lucky.

The handyman who came to board up the side of the building I hit responded to my body language by reminding me “Why do you think they call them accidents?” The front of my car was badly damaged, but what I was doing to myself, on the inside, was even more barbed and brutal.

I couldn’t think of anything I was preoccupied with that may have interfered with me giving my full attention to what I had to do behind the wheel. I worried that I was hopelessly ungrounded and might be prone to other mishaps. I imagined people criticizing me for being a bad driver.

I was lucky I didn’t have serious injuries or had to deal with guilt over hurting anyone else. But all I seemed able to think about was some failure of mine.

The rest of the afternoon, I did the things you are supposed to do in such a situation. I filed an insurance claim. I purchased a sticker for my license plate renewal. I reserved a rental car for the next day. In the evening, I fell apart. How could I have been so …(fill in the blank with any range of vindictive expression)?

I called a friend in Michigan. She tried to help me put things in perspective.

“Take out a blank sheet of paper, and draw a dot,” she instructed. “Think of that dot as representing the accident.”

“Now draw a much larger circle,” she went on. In retrospect, she probably intended for me to have two circles of disparate diameters side by side, but for some unknown reason, I decided to surround my dot with the larger circle, which I later shaded in.

“This big circle can represent the entirety of your life. The accident is over,” she remarked without judgment. “It was real, but it is not the whole of your life.”

She went on to ask me questions about myself, how I made choices, how I treated others, when was the last time I pushed myself and tried something new. We concluded that I have acted bravely, tended to be generous and was often wise. She added that from what she could tell, I probably liked myself. I agreed. I am who I am because of conscious choices I’ve made.

She recommended wrapping a bubble of unconditional love around my dot and circle, advising me to love and forgive myself. Not in an airy-fairy sort of way, but to remember that anything that IS is part of everything that is.

Even temporarily, feeling so out of control is disorienting. Damaging physical property despite a general orientation to be careful is unsettling, but my life is more than an event. My character is more shining than it is dirty.

Being reminded to keep things in perspective is no small thing.


door stopOne evening last week, I trudged up my front stairs, up to my door on the second floor, grocery tote bags in tow. I paused on my welcome mat for a moment, trying to figure out if I could pull out the right key from my crowded ring without having to place all my parcels down.

Eureka! I found the right key easily enough. I guided the key into the lock and turned the knob, pushing my hip against the door to help me work the door over the place in threshold where it seems to get stuck. Then, I flung the door open.

If it weren’t for the brass doorstop a few inches off the floor, the inside of the door knob would have certainly made an imprint on my recently painted walls. I had never given much thought to my doorstop before, but I felt a wave of gratitude as I headed towards the kitchen to get my milk and eggs into the fridge.

It really protected my wall. It insured that I didn’t do any unintended damage while I wasn’t thinking, when I lost control of how hard I pushed. I considered that my life is full of such things: everyday devices or small habits that provide some level of protection when I’m not being mindful.

Many cars have daytime running lights so you don’t run your battery down if you forget to turn them off. Holes at the bottom of flowerpots help keep you from over-watering. I’ve gotten into the habit of reading food labels when grocery shopping and purposely steer away from items with a quickly approaching expiration date – even if an item’s on sale

Doesn’t everyone want to feel protected?

I just drove a friend to a colonoscopy appointment. (Ah, the joys of being middle-aged.) It was a routine test and was ordered based on the number of years that passed since his last one, not any troubling symptoms. I am glad I escorted him. It was obvious to both of us, as we searched the curtained off recovery area for where they put his cell phone and shoes, driving himself home was not a good idea. By his own admission, he was kind of loopy following the procedure.

When I was in my twenties, we used the term protection as a euphemism for using condoms for sex, for guarding against an unwanted pregnancy or an STD. It seems funny to me, now that I’m in my fifties (the new thirties, right?), that the notion of protection is largely framed in terms of age-appropriate medical tests.

Driving back to his neighborhood, we talked about different medical tests and whether we felt they were important. Doctors, of course, are afraid of lawsuits and will often try to order everything possible. It seems reasonable to consider family history and be more vigilant to follow-up on symptoms that became challenges for family members.

But sometimes it feels like the idea of protection, and what constitutes reasonable precautions, has run amok in our world. By focusing on what could possibly go wrong, we can actually move farther away from achieving a sense of security.

I find myself both feeling grateful for things like doorstops and, though I don’t consider myself a Pollyanna type, I’ve become a little resentful of messages that make everything sound potentially harmful. I am leery of new age thinking that forwards the notion that your thoughts create your reality. Being afraid of your own thoughts is hell.

I think everyone has to find his or her own path. How does one go about achieving a sense of feeling protected?  I am trying to inform myself more thoroughly about things I haven’t been in the habit of studying. I have also incorporated prayer into my life. Surrender seems to be an important aspect of a happy life.

Increasing your sense of security with mindfulness without trying to control life or find things to be fearful about is no small thing.


Seeing to the Other Side

lake genevaEvery six weeks or so, I get together with some gal pals to discuss a book. We take turns picking out the book and hosting the gathering. Of course, there’s food and social time, but having been in other kinds of book groups before, we’ve made a conscious decision to focus on the literary work, not the wine.

One Sunday last month, aware that winter weather might interfere with our best plans to all assemble December through March, three of us drove from Chicago across the border — to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The 90-minute road trip amid the changing fall colors gave us a special appreciation for life in the Midwest, not to mention the long trip Barb makes to Chicago most other months.

We enjoyed a lovely brunch of thyme and mustard encrusted salmon and had a very lively 2-hour discussion on a historical novel none of us was particularly taken with although we all admitted we learned a lot. Then we took a walk.

It was fun to walk in unfamiliar surroundings. We didn’t have a particular destination, no goal in mind other than leaving town by 4:30. We walked down residential streets and marveled at the architecture, the Arts and Crafts period houses that would be out of place among the brick bungalows us urban chicks were accustomed to.

We stopped at a few tourist destinations in the blocks that constituted downtown. Apparently because of a disturbance some years back, few places had liquor licenses. Instead of small taverns advertising Spotted Cow lager, a popular Wisconsin brew, we visited an olive oil tasting room that we might have been more likely to find at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

We walked into an antique/bric-a-brac store, which sponsored some sort of pet rescue. Fortunately, none of us brought purses for our walk so we weren’t able to buy things that would invariably end up at a neighborhood garage sale.

Then we walked to the lake. It was a very short distance from downtown.

It made quite an impression. I lingered in the park by the library and was amazed at what it felt like to look across an expanse of water and actually see to the other side.

I saw very expensive homes and condo complexes, boat slips, trees and a couple camel colored dots along the shoreline, which I learned later were public beaches. Seeing to the other side of the lake made me feel positively buoyant!

It’s great to look out onto a large body of water and consider the vastness of things, to consider that you’re part of the fabric of life. And sometimes, it’s great to be able to see the other side of a lake and let your eyes follow the perimeter of shoreline and look for markers.

It seems that most of my life has been about transitions. I’ve had to learn new skills to help me on new jobs. I’ve engaged in difficult conversations because I wanted to have different kinds of relationships with people I loved enough to be honest with.

The motivation to learn and change and grow is always authentic, but fear inevitably comes up. It’s sometimes hard to imagine showing up differently in the world. Starting in a new direction is like looking north at Lake Michigan from Oak Street Beach. It’s at least 300 miles to the other side.

It felt so good to look at the other side of Lake Geneva. Even though I don’t know what I will be like at the end of my journey, or even after I get through my current challenges, it’s nice to be reminded that there is another side.

Knowing that any period of transition can be navigated and that there is a landing spot on the other side is no small thing.

Little Sparrow

sparrow 1I was walking from an appointment to the subway when the realization hit me. It was past three o’clock and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I didn’t want to go to Mickie Dee’s or opt for a very pricey trip through the salad bar at Whole Paycheck.

I ducked off Michigan Avenue, which was crowded with tourists and buskers with their open, velour-lined guitar and violin cases sporting collections of singles and found myself on Huron Street in front of a little Italian deli and bakery, L’Appetito. I bought a calzone and found a seat on their small patio.

A short, black iron railing and a thin layer of bushes surrounded the little rectangle where six two-seat café tables and black wicker chairs were arranged. One giant red umbrella provided shade for the entire area.

I chose a chair near the sidewalk and rested my backpack on the chair opposite me. I started nibbling on my calzone, which was really hitting the spot, when a little sparrow emerged from the bushes and landed not three feet from me.

Of course, I started to talk to the bird. It wasn’t exactly a baby bird, but it didn’t seem to be fully grown either. It was probably 4 inches from the end of his tail to his beak, different shades of gray with a bluish underbelly. He turned his head in jerky movements as if a character in a stop action animation. For a few moments, he puffed up, spreading out his feathers and extending his chest as if he was pretending to be bigger than he was.

I’m so glad you stopped by today, little sparrow. Do you want to tell me something?

Even if I did not speak these words out loud, the bird seemed to know I was addressing him. He tilted his head as if questioning me. I wanted to take this chance encounter with such a natural, unpretentious creature as a sign that something good was about to enter my life.

I took another bite of my calzone and observed how a thread of melted cheese stretched from my mouth to the pocket style sandwich I held in my hand. I listened to the bells from St. James Cathedral across the street peal, marking the quarter hour. I contemplated the kinds of life changes I’d welcome. I contemplated that the bird was here to grant me a wish.

The idea came over me that I should share my lunch. I broke off a corner of my calzone. Then again, I took the piece of bread and broke it down further into about eight crumbs, each one small enough, I hoped, to fit down the bird’s throat. I placed some crumbs on the table and some on the patio floor.

The little sparrow scooped up one crumb eagerly. He held it in his beak for a few moments before he gulped it down. He picked up a second crumb then flew away.

A few seconds later, a similarly sized sparrow landed on the table, grabbed a crumb and flew off. Then another bird replicated this routine. And then another bird, and another…until all the crumbs were gone.

I smiled. What was I thinking? That the bird was here to bring me a message from the universe, that he landed on my table at L’Appetito to tell me something? He was just hungry and he knew of a good spot to have this need met.

Maybe this was the extent of the message.

Getting a gentle reminder from the universe that it’s not always about you is no small thing.

Husband and Husband

IMG_1922 - Version 2The other week, around Wednesday or Thursday, a friend called me up to inquire about my plans for the weekend.

“I can’t do anything Saturday night,” I informed her. “I’m going to my first gay wedding.”

Telling her that I had another commitment would have been enough information, but I chose to tell her I was going to my first wedding between same sex partners because it felt like a big deal.

Not a total surprise (the couple had been together for almost 13 years), so many things about this pubic ceremony and party felt different to me.

It was a first time I got a wedding invitation by email. It was an interactive wedding invitation with artwork of a bird and a graphic of an RSVP envelope that had to be opened through a series of clicks.

The event was held in a large gymnasium at a senior center that was able to accommodate the crowd that included the couple’s large families, close friends, and co-workers. Over 200 guests, for sure. A conga band provided the after-dinner entertainment. (Yes, and guests actually danced.)

With beautiful silver tablecloths and lovely flower arrangements, which I found out later were done by the Blossom Boys, the site for many zumba classes was transformed. A floor to ceiling window on one side of the hardwood provided a beautiful view of an open field at sunset.

Yes indeedy. This was a different sort of wedding.

There was no organ music to mark the start of orchestrated activities. There wasn’t a center aisle and no angst involved in figuring out whether you belonged on the right or the left side. There was no giving away of a bride by a nervous father. There was no parade of besties and sisters of the groom wearing dresses they didn’t particularly like.

The Gymnasium was filled with beautifully appointed round tables. A long table near the bandstand was set up as a bar. The line of people waiting for refills of wine was never-ending. Strangers enjoyed exchanging banter with anyone they shared their wait with.

About 30 minutes after the time noted in the invitation, the two men we came to celebrate sat in two chairs in the center of the room while their guests had all taken their seats at assigned tables. The two grooms created their own set of rituals and vows for the occasion, lighting a candle together and delivering small white bouquets to the matriarchs of their respective families. The ceremony was informal but not taken lightly. In step with the spirit of inclusion, an elderly black woman presided over the ceremony.

Before the exchange of vows and the much-anticipated kiss, before my friends were pronounced “husband and husband,” four readers came forward to deliver specially selected words. A beautiful poem by Pablo Neruda was read, in English and Spanish. But the words that captured the special attention of everyone were from the Illinois Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Bill. Passages were read out loud.

Living in a state where two people, of any sex, can publically declare and celebrate their commitment to each other is no small thing.

Crepe in the Park

crepe in the parkBeing on the cusp of fall, you can take note of the changes that surround you, especially in the Midwest. The sun sets earlier. The night winds pack a chill and the leaves start turning colors.

In a more local reference, it is the time of year when twelve year-old boys and their father-coaches wear two different uniforms as they occupy two different sides of Welles Park, and other neighborhood fields, to engage in league play. On one side of the park, baseball is still played, and on the other side of the park, the preteen boys seem lost inside their padded football uniforms and helmets.

Often, when I’ve taken the side streets to the library, I’ve passed a little green shack along Sunnyside, between one of the park’s three baseball diamonds and the activities building. It’s a modest wooden structure at the top of three stairs. Its sign simply announces the name of the business and its purpose, Crepe in the Park.

While returning an overdue library book recently, I checked out its hours, which were posted on a fence, and discovered it operated noon until 7:00 PM, Monday through Saturday. I went there as an intended destination one evening last week, around 6:00. Anticipating sitting and eating at one of a half dozen white metal café tables with a good view of the baseball field, I brought a can of LaCroix with me. (LaCroix, that’s French., right?)

As I approached the small structure, I noticed a lone young man, wearing a short chef’s cap, standing behind the counter. He was short, but not delicate, and was of a golden complexion. I guessed he was Filipino or Indonesian. At one point in our exchange he explained to me that his wife, who taught him how to make crepes, was French-speaking from Africa.

My mind whirred thinking about all he must have gone through to be where I found him. He must have stories to tell about how he got to Chicago, how he met his wife, how he ended up starting up this little business and what it’s like to spend most of his day standing over two circular griddles making fancy flapjacks.

I studied the menu board to the right of the shack. Savory crepes, like pesto and ricotta, cost $6. Sweet crepes, often filled with berries or nuts and topped with whipped cream he added from an aerosol can he kept in a small cooler, cost $4.00. Of course, I had to try one savory and one sweet crepe before sitting at my table and watching the early fall action on the baseball diamond.

While he was making my crepes, I stood just beyond the counter, on which a replica of the Eifel Tower was displayed. We talked. I was amazed that he created this enterprise – right here in my neighborhood; the only food concession on this side of the park.

How did he get the idea? How did he get a license? I was delighted by the whole experience. I wasn’t sure what was the greatest source of pleasure, what I was most grateful for.

I discovered a little bit of Paris on the north side of Welles Park. That this was the only permanent place to get food in the park was another minor miracle. That an Asian man chose to use his African wife’s recipe, get a license to erect this structure and run this business (in a city where such permissions are hard to come by) was downright inspirational!

As I sat at my table, while I paid some attention to the baseball game, I also noticed a small but steady stream of customers climb up those three stairs.

Eating a whipped cream topped crepe on a beautiful early fall evening, made by such a determined entrepreneur, is no small thing.











Unlocking Neural Pathways

lock 4A few months ago, when I moved, I purchased a new combination lock for my basement storage locker. I wrote down the three-number sequence on an index card and placed the card in the kitchen drawer where I keep carryout menus.

Oddly enough, as soon as I got this lock, I forgot the combination for the lock I use for my health club locker. It was as if I could only store one sequence of three numbers (1-40) at a time. I ended up buying a lock and key set for the gym and had to get used to working out with the key sliding around in my left shoe.

I have been thinking about memory ever since.

Why is it that some things stick in your head regardless of how often you try to access the information and other bits seem to evaporate? I still remember most of the 5-digit zip codes for the northern suburbs of Chicago because of a summer job I had working in a postal distribution center almost forty years ago. That I often can’t remember where I left keys or my glasses (even when they’re pushed up my forehead like a headband) confounds me.

Being creatures often motivated by approval, it seems that our tendency to remember the name of a song or the admission price for an art museum is linked to having regular contact with someone who would be interested in that factoid.

We like to equip ourselves with information we can share with our compadres. It feels good to be able to correctly recall which sluggers played for a single team over the span of their careers when hanging out with fantasy league friends, or be able to recount to a fellow film aficionado which Woody Allen movies featured Dianne Wiest.

Memories are fickle though, how something in your known universe can be recalled at some times, but not at other times; how something that can’t be recalled one day, emerges, seemingly unsought, weeks later.

I am oddly happy when I can end a phone conversation with a tech or settle my dinner tab with a waitress by invoking the name they mentioned so casually at the beginning of our exchange. I can get despondent over not being able to name actors or politicians I grew up knowing, or the names of a good friend’s children, or the street that has a little known entrance ramp to the expressway, or if that favorite Szechwan restaurant is closed on Mondays, or…

I know there are Sudoku puzzles and brain games and even dietary supplements for improving one’s memory, which are all good, but, when it comes to memory, I feel it’s important to check motives. Do we want to remember something because a slice of information is important to our survival or to the health of a relationship, or are we looking for a measuring stick to declare superior knowledge or to berate ourselves for a shortcoming?

Supposedly, by the time we reach fifty, our ability to recall recently processed information diminishes. Maybe more valuable than writing down a locker combination on an index card, I need to remember to be kinder to myself when my once stellar ability to recall such things has changed.

I often laugh when I feel my locker key sliding around under my thick white socks while I am on the treadmill at the gym. I can remember to smile when a regular companion forgets what kind of wine I like to order at a favorite bistro. It’s not that important. Feeling more compassion for ourselves and for others is what matters.

Forgiving ourselves for forgetting and acknowledging ourselves for remembering what’s truly important is no small thing


young drummerLike bookends at opposite sides of a shelf, for years, I’ve been trekking out to Hyde Park the first weekend of June for the 57th Street Art Fair and making a return visit the last Saturday of September for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. For me, summer is what happens in between these cross-town sojourns.

Hyde Park has long been a special neighborhood in Chicago. In 1893, it was the site of the World’s Fair, which, supposedly, was visited by one out of four Americans. It is also the home of the University of Chicago, the Midwest equivalent of an Ivy institution, whose motto, a testament to academic rigor, is “where fun comes to die.”

The neighborhood’s jazz festival features an abundance of local talent whose fans happen to span the globe. This year’s lineup included saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, vocalist Dee Alexander, and a true master of the keyboard, Willie Pickens, who at 83 is as entertaining as ever.

I make it a point, before I approach Hyde Park Boulevard, to plot out who I want to see and what venues I want to visit. Performances take place at about a dozen venues over eighteen hours. I might try to see some favorites, but I am very happy to check out acts that I’ve never heard before.

My first stop of the day was to see journeyman sax man, Eric Schneider, a frequent headliner at The Green Mill, play with his group in the courtyard of the SMART Museum, the University of Chicago’s art museum. At the end of the set, they announced that a sixteen year-old kid, the next Coltrane. was going to be blowing his sax at the museum’s café. Of course I was skeptical, but I had to check it out.

Maybe I’ve fallen into a common baby boomer syndrome. I get irritated easily with young people. I’ll critique their conversational vocabulary and find it thin. (There has to be another way to describe something you like other than to say it’s sweet or awesome.) I’ll shake my head when I witness two or more people, who are obviously hanging out together, engrossed in a frenetic texting episode, apparently preferring to communicate with someone who is not with them.

Saturday, after seeing such a scene, I wondered if youthful passion and energy still existed.

Then I walked into the café at the SMART Museum, an airy white room with very minimalist, very Euro white chairs suitable for a Lavazza espresso poster. Around fifty people of different ages were transfixed by the sight of four young musicians in the center of the room.

The bandleader, a tall, slim black kid, wearing a white shirt and his Sunday suit, did, in fact, evoke the spirit of John Coltrane. He closed his eyes as his thin fingers moved knowingly over the keys of his tenor sax as he went off on improvisations.

His concentration and technique was amazing. His connection to the music was authentic and mature. As I caught myself worrying over whether his pants would slide off his skinny frame, I had to shake my head in disbelief. He was only sixteen.

“That’s my nephew,” a compact middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap and a very wide smile whispered to me as I found a seat. He then went on to point out the musician’s mother, who was recording a video, his father, who started him off on a musical path when the boy was five, and his younger brother who was developing into a fine jazz drummer.

Isiah Collier played with a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. All of them played with serious expressions but with great joy. In every solo, I saw each displaying their individual character without trying to upstage each other. They always practiced impeccable technique and gave each other visual cues of intent.

Seeing a young man, humbly radiating his light, in a state of pure potential, respecting those who have walked his path before, is no small thing.

Lunchtime Surprise

pilsen dinerNamed after a city in Bohemia, for the past fifty years, the neighborhood of Pilsen has been the center of Mexican cultural life in Chicago.

I usually choose to explore the area every October, which is when they have a killer Day of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art. This year, I drove cross-town a few weeks early to take a friend for a first-time visit to the museum.

Before wandering up Eighteenth Street, to check out the pastry shops serving dulce de leche and street venders hawking homemade tamales, I wanted to go to the museum. I was sure he’d be impressed with the art collection.

Upon entering, we were greeted by a young, dark haired women who explained that only two galleries were open currently because a new exhibit was being mounted. She also told us that that there was a special reception taking place in the community room in a short time.

I was more than a little disappointed. I was eager to show my friend favorite renditions of Our Lady of Guadalupe and samples of Huichol yarn art. He took the change of plans in stride. We browsed the two galleries and gift shop quickly.

Then, out of curiosity, we moved towards the community room. Several attractive bi-lingual twenty-somethings were positioned at tables to answer questions and record email addresses as people entered. It turned out to be a rally and reception for Dick Durbin who is running for senate re-election this year.

Soft drinks, tamales, and plates of cookies were set up on long plastic covered tables in one room and staged entertainment went on in another room.

We saw a lively mariachi band followed by folkloric dancers in front of a large screen where Unido con Durbin was projected in a large, bold font.

After enjoying the unexpected entertainment at the museum, we wandered down side streets and looked at the work of some less heralded but very talented muralists.

Everyman heroes were not forgotten in the street art of Pilsen. One garage door boasted great likenesses of Poncho VIlla and Emiliano Zapata. A small factory nearby had painted vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) being looked over by a traditional depiction of Jesus.

After our art walk through the streets, we ambled down the main drag and picked out a place to have a couple tacos, Caritas Uruapan. They seemed to specialize in all things PIG and, based on the crowd, was pretty popular with the locals.

Shortly after we were served tacos in paper-lined red plastic baskets by a smiling waitress (She later handed us La Vaquita carmel lollipops with the check), a conjunto norteno, a small band of musicians, walked through the yellow tiled walls of the restaurant. They started playing and singing. It was the real deal, my friend, who goes to Mexico every winter, told me.

I saw that he was happy with the adventure. This made me very happy – enjoying the day as it unfolded, even though it was not the day I had planned.

We weren’t able to see any work by Diego Rivera at the museum, but did get to see traditional Mexican dancers at the Democratic senator’s rally, saw an incredible mural on the side of a house showing a recent immigrant getting caught in the barbed wire on the border, and we got to enjoy some authentic norteno music over lunch.

Seeing that things can turn out better than what was planned is no small thing.



Let’s Play Two

wrigley fieldDuring my friend Rocco’s recent visit we decided to catch a Cubs game. This is a fun thing to do at any time, but because the Cubs have been in a re-building process (It’s been what –- 106 years since the team’s last World Championship), it was especially easy just to walk to the park and pick up tickets, for less than face value, on the street ten minutes before the anthem was sung.

September is an odd time to go to a game when a team is not contending for anything. It’s a time to see players just called up from Triple A and get a feel for whether they’ll make it to the roster next year.

Shortly after our tickets were scanned, we roamed around the park before claiming the best unoccupied seats in the grandstand. Then we watched an odd sort of parade. Rookie pitchers that just joined the club wore pink Hello Kitty backpacks as they made their way to the bullpen. All part of a hazing ritual, I guess.

We paid a lot of attention to at bats of highly touted prospects and gave, perhaps, less attention to players we expected would be back in Iowa next year. We found ourselves starting easy conversations with people sitting nearby.

And, of course, it was hard not to get nostalgic as we looked around — at the ivy covered brick outfield walls, the tall green scoreboard, a fixture at the friendly confines since 1937, and the Cubs’ old-fashioned blue pin-striped home uniforms. We recalled other visits to the park and swapped stories about special moments at games we attended. Rocco boasted that he was going to catch a foul ball.

It seemed important that I make a pilgrimage out to the park this season although I have not been following the team closely. This summer marked the 100th year anniversary of baseball being played on this field, tucked away in the middle of the Chicago neighborhood that now bears its name, Wrigleyville.

The park has undergone some changes since first opening as Weeghman Park a century ago. Sky boxes and the Captain Morgan’s Club were added fairly recently.  Lighting for night baseball was added in 1988. (Until 1988, only day baseball was played.)  But I like to think that the experience of watching a game here now is pretty much the same as it was decades, maybe even a century, ago.

Since this wonderful feeling of time standing still can’t exist in a culture geared toward meeting commercial goals, plans for the Disney-fication of Wrigley Field have been drawn. Construction for many projects should begin as soon as this 100th year celebration of the park is over.

They will be expanding the bleachers, re-locating the bullpen, adding new suites, updating the press box, renovating the concourse, and putting in a least one Jumbotron giant scoreboard. I guess they’re going to put up a hotel across the street.

It felt like a special time to be at the ballpark, like sitting on a baseball cusp of some sort. I watched a team of unknowns, some possible future stars, play in a 100-year old ballpark filled with memories and a lot of spilled Old Styles while a construction crew was poised to come in and make a new Wrigley Field.

Of course I feel wistful about the changes and hopeful about not waiting another hundred years for the Cubs to be crowned World Champions. Right now, I feel blessed.

Being at the intersection of the future and the past is no small thing.

Did You Hear the One About…

lynne 2“I’ve got a couple jokes I have to tell you. One, I actually have to show you” I said to my friend Lynne almost as soon as I walked in to her hospital room and moved the chair closer to her bed.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to dish out a few jokes from the series of one-liners told to me the day before, but I couldn’t wait to see if the same bits would tickle my friend the way they did me.

“Wait, hand me a pen,” she said, flipping through the yellow lined legal pad on her tray table. “I should write these down so I could tell them to my boss.”

I didn’t think about it much at the time, but this was so much like her. She hadn’t heard any of my jokes yet, but she was already anticipating she’d hear at least one or two she’d like and want to pass on.

Wanting to write down a joke to jog her memory was her way of saying how serious she was about humor. It was obviously important to her, amidst all the problems and unhappiness in the world, while she was in the hospital no less, to focus on how she could pass on a little lightness to someone else.

I quickly handed her a pen, which I dug up from my purse, and started off my routine with the joke I promised needed to be shown.

“Why do Jewish men have such short necks?”  I waited to see clues in her expression that told me she had a good guess or that she heard the joke before.

After a few seconds, she shook her head — she didn’t have a good answer – and I drew my shoulders up towards my ears and tilted my head to one side in an exaggerated shrug.

She erupted in laughter and copped the same expression. I watched her roll her eyes, which twinkled with life despite not having had solid food for several days and getting oxygen through a couple of small plastic tubes attached to her nose. Maybe I was operating under the philosophy that you can’t let up when your audience is receptive. I followed up on this sight gag with a riddle?

“How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

Again, I waited a few seconds for her answer before supplying the one given to me. “Only one – but he has to give it a good twist.”

Again, I saw laughter pour through her. She seemed happy just experiencing a few seconds of lightness before attempting to write the joke down and before asking her roommate on the other side of the curtain if we were making too much noise.

A good chuckle is not only something that naturally begs to be shared, seeing the reaction in my friend’s face was more enjoyable than my own surprise when I first heard the punch line. Giving someone something to laugh about is certainly a case where it is better to give than to receive.

Giving and receiving a little laughter is no small thing.


It Pays to Advertise

daily bar & grillLast week when I was walking home from Gene’s Sausage Shop and Delicatessen, I noticed lingering in front of store windows on my path. The front case at Book Cellars featured hardcover editions displayed with cards declaring Man Booker Prize Winner or Staff Pick 2014. In the front window of Merz Apothecary was a collection of oddly shaped bottles, mostly skin lotions or home remedies that were popular in Europe. A colorful poster was taped to the glass door of another store. It said:

German-American Fest, September 5th, 6th, and 7th. Lincoln and Leland. Music. Food. Beer.

Well, I guess it pays to advertise.

I realized how much I liked to notice information about a product or entertainment option within the natural course of walking around my neighborhood.

I get sort of freaked out when I see advertisements online for products or services I Googled recently. The other day, I checked out prices for some exercise equipment and, sure enough, today related links filled my screen. It’s like being stalked.

When I walk by a window display, I may be prompted to make a spur of the moment purchase or make a special note in my mind that something is available that I might have been unaware existed. I love coming across Opening Soon signs. Knowing that whatever is coming soon will be in close proximity to where I live thrills me.

When I was walking down Lincoln Avenue the other day, I stopped in front of the Daily Bar & Grill for several minutes. I saw posters for special promotions they were having, nights where they played trivia games or featured drink specials. I also saw posters for theatrical productions running currently at black box theaters nearby. I saw silkscreened posters for bands playing at Martyrs and other clubs down the street. I admired the artwork.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The full window of posters at The Daily Bar & Grill comes down to advertising places for drinking and music where people who like drinking and music hang out.

Maybe signs and merchandising displays and posters are not very sophisticated ways of reaching people. Directing a message to street traffic involves smaller numbers than other forms of advertising. Yet, it works for me, and I’m happy when I’m not a number, when I can see that businesses still communicate with consumers this way.

Reading a poster feels like a discovery, and following up on discovery feels like making a choice.

As I scanned the patchwork of posters in the window of The Daily, I thought about my calendar. I asked myself when was I free. I thought about what things I didn’t want to miss. I saw there was a Neil LaBute play at Profiles Theatre and considered that the big tent at the German-American Festival is always fun for a few hours.

Being given all the information you need to decide that you want to try something, without strings or obligations, is no small thing.


paciuggoIt was already well into August, and I realized I had not yet patronized my favorite gelateria. Well yes, it is a chain outlet, but not an obnoxiously over-exposed brand. It features a changing selection of unusual flavors. Or, at least, they seem exotic to someone who grew up on Baskin Robbins’ Jamoca Almond Fudge and Cock Robbins’ Chocolate Chip.

Chocolate Carmel and Sea Salt. Panna Cotta. Pistachio that actually tastes like the nut only creamy. Say ahhhhh!

So I was at a Thursday night concert in Lincoln Square listening to an acoustic Beatles tribute band wrap up their set with Eight Days a Week, and I decided to pack up my lawn chair and walk into Paciugo’s.

Decorated in ultra modern white, the place practically glowed as I approached. There was a little bit of a line leaning over the glass case, but there were four twenty-somethings waiting on customers, so the line moved pretty briskly.

Outfitted in simple black jeans and logo-ized long-sleeved black cotton shirts, they were a great advertisement for forgetting the butterfat content of their product. It was hard not to look at the colorful freezer case and not say to myself, “I’ll have a scoop of everything…and I want to look like that.”

Instead of being impatient while I waited in line, I tried to use the time to observe what other people were choosing. Every flavor seemed to be a sort of extreme color, if there is such a term. The berry flavors vibrated in hues that could decorate a fairy kingdom. Chocolate themed tubs of gelato seemed to draw you in to their darkness.

Soon enough, a good-looking, slim young woman –- dare I call her a flavor consultant – stood in front of me. She held up a pink plastic spoon, barely 2 inches long, and said the magic words.

“Is there anything you’d like to try?”

I am not entirely sure why the ritual of the pink plastic spoon makes me so happy. I know I can try as many flavors as I like. That’s a perk. No one in line seems to judge me for vacillating before placing my order and moving to the register. Chances are, making up their minds is not easy for them either.

But I really like the safe way I can stretch my comfort zone. I might not like the idea of being a strictly vanilla or strawberry person, but I am not sure my taste buds are so adventurous that I want my cup or cone filled with maple bacon or olive oil and cracked pepper ice cream.

I like the way tasting similar flavors, one mini pink spoonful after another, can help me distinguish the subtle differences between options and, ultimately, help me understand my own tastes. What is the difference between chocolate with hazelnut, chocolate with hints of orange and saffron, or chocolate with toasted coconut? Which one do I like more?

Of course, it’s nice to be able to taste before you buy something so that you feel assured that you’ve made a good investment. Even though, if it turns out you don’t like a flavor you order, you’re only out four dollars, it still feels good to choose something you’ll like from first to last mouthful.

I love going on tastings, ultimately, because I like to be in situations where my preferences matter. Whether wine, beer, cheese, olive oil or some other consumable, I like the opportunity to learn what I want more of and what I’d just as well skip. I love to exercise my preferences.

Being able to try a small taste of something before you commit to full portion is no small thing.


Dear Deer

deersIt seems simple enough; locating a recycling center. But I haven’t actually found it to be so. My building doesn’t have a special receptacle for recyclables, but I like to avoid taking up extra space in landfills. So, I’ll collect glass bottles, plastic containers, cans, and newspapers in a little blue plastic garbage can and drive full bins to a set of labeled dumpsters at a neighborhood recycling center.

I thought there was one at Horner Park and drove a full can there only to be informed by the security guard that they had to remove the dumpster because people were using it to dump (all sorts of) garbage. Imagine that.

I consulted online postings about the city’s recycling program but didn’t know if the locations listed were current. The 17th District police station, which used to be a recycling site, suggested I go to the parking lot at Northeastern College. They were supposed to be a big center.

I hadn’t been there for years. Northeastern is a small, teaching school just past the Montrose Cemetery and Crematorium, by a strip of small factories. Along with academic and recreation buildings, the 67 acre campus contains a small nature preserve. I used to take walks through the trails there with a friend.

Sure enough, after turning off of Pulaski and following the signs pointing to the recycling center, I found myself in a smallish parking lot on the edge of a wooded area with a family of deer watching me. I was just shy of fuming over the great lengths I had to go through to dispose of my plastic water bottles responsibly when I tripped on a sight that melted my heart.

While the deer didn’t hang out by the dumpsters, they weren’t afraid of grazing near the pavement either. They obviously didn’t like people to come too close, but they liked a lot of the things visitors left behind like discarded remnants of sandwiches. I observed one deer nuzzling a white candy bar wrapper, pushing it with her snout until she decided it contained nothing for her.

It’s so great to find nature in unexpected places; to see fresh flowers in a modest corner cafe or trees in the lobby of an office building.

It’s also a treat to see anything or anyone act naturally. Not being self-conscious is part of this equation. The family of deer didn’t seem to be ruffled by my presence. They tolerated me walking close, but not too close, while I snapped a series of photographs. When they had enough, they simply ran away.

Don’t most of us get a charge out of seeing a child or animal doing just about anything because how they do things is a natural expression of who they are?

The deer family had friends in the woods. I watched six in total run behind the trees and out of sight before dragging my little blue bin out from the back seat of my car. I realized I must have been watching them for about ten minutes. During this time, my mission of sorting cans and bottles and paper products was suspended.

Putting agendas on hold in order to revel in an unexpected encounter with nature is no small thing.


Why Not Wednesdays?

navy pier fireworksThere are few things I like more than watching fireworks; from simple bottle rockets set off in my alley on the Fourth of July to impressive chrysanthemum sprays bursting over the lake during a choreographed display. I even love the colorless crackling or whirring sounds a shell will make as it travels up into the dark humid summer sky before the inevitable explosion.

The other evening, I was walking with some friends in Streeterville, an upscale neighborhood nestled between Oak Street Beach and the fancy stores along The Magnificent Mile. It was about 9:15 when we heard what sounded like gunfire. My girlfriend started running towards Lake Shore Drive, not worrying much about whether the rest of us planned on catching up any time soon.

“Fireworks!” she squealed.

When the rest of us did catch up to her on the corner of Superior and Lake Shore Drive, her eyes were transfixed on the sky. Her mouth was open and her feet were anchored to the sidewalk.

Although I am crazy about pyrotechnic displays myself, the first words out of my mouth seemed aimed at shutting down some of the wonder.

“They have fireworks over the Pier every Wednesday and Saturday nights during the summer. It’s mostly for tourists, I think.”

Immediately after making this comment, I had to ask myself, Why not on Wednesdays? Why should we only reserve such magic for holidays and special celebrations?

Then I felt compelled to let my friend of over forty years know that I knew what she was thinking. She’s been looking at making some big decisions and has been going through more than a little angst. I added a few words in a joking tone that I knew also summed up many hopes she had in her heart.

“It’s a sign. It’s a sign,” I repeated.

We all laughed.

Wouldn’t we all like to see a rainbow after meeting someone we see romantic potential with, or encounter no traffic after coming home from a job interview, or see someone gardening next door to a home we are considering buying?

Our first impulse might be to dismiss such reactions as self-indulgent or childish; as pie-in-the-sky wishes. Many of us — certainly this has been true of me — have gotten well-trained in tempering expectations of disappointment by not allowing ourselves to dream. I suppose that’s a little like listening to the sounds of fireworks and keeping our eyes closed while they light up the sky.

What’s wrong with believing in magic? What’s wrong with recognizing the value of our dreams? Maybe the message Why not Wednesdays? should be replaced with Why not me?

Even if a dream can’t be fulfilled exactly as you might envision it or cannot happen without some effort, letting yourself dream is a way to clarify what you want. I would rather spend my life moving towards something that uplifts me than give my energy to something just to avoid disappointment.

If fireworks, or a timely breeze, or having exact change feels like a good omen — why not appreciate the moment.

Feeling entitled to a dream, and to be encouraged that it is attainable, is no small thing.

White Fireplace

fireplaceRecently, I took a look at my living room. About two months after moving, I was just starting to feel at home.

I closed on the property April 30th, had it painted the first week of May, had my belongings deposited during the middle of May, waited impatiently for my new wall unit and couch to be delivered the 2nd week of June, bought bedroom furniture, and picked up some stereo equipment from craigslist advertisers during the weeks that followed. As it has been pointed out before, moving is a process, not an event.

I have friends who keep To Do Lists. They faithfully place check marks after an action item has been executed. I know other people who keep Ta Da lists. Check marks are made the same way, but the feeling after completing a task is more celebratory, reflecting a sense of accomplishment, not merely unburdening.

It’s only natural to want to see progress along a path. My fireplace became a symbol of making a property I purchased my home.

When I first saw the place, the living room, including the fireplace,  was a dark gray and the walls were lined with wooden shelves and bric-a-brac galore. The bathrooms were purple. Although not decorated in my style, I still liked the flow of the space and saw potential.

I had the whole place painted a light pebble green the first week I had keys – except the fireplace, which I was told had to be covered in a special heat-resistant paint. It remained a gunmetal shade of gray. My painter was not able to find this kind of paint at Menard’s and we agreed that he would come back to paint the fireplace when I had other jobs for him.

Weeks passed. I bought a new duvet and a set of silverware. I created a small inventory of air filters (which I promise to change monthly). I moved my meditation stool to my bedroom and hung artwork. Things got checked off my To Do List, but I’d see the gray fireplace, and I didn’t feel like the space was mine.

Then I texted the painter and asked him if he could finish painting the fireplace. I no longer wanted the completion of painting to depend on having other work for him. He happened to be finishing a small job not far away and agreed to come over later that afternoon.

The fireplace was painted white. All remnants of gray were covered. He installed new sconces on either side of the mantel. I still had rugs and a new dining room fixture to buy, but the place seemed fully mine now. I ran the ceiling fan at low-speed and sat on my couch. I felt at home now.

Seeing a white fireplace, or anything that can represent a completion, is no small thing.

No Two are Alike

cloudsRecently, I was at an outdoor concert. I had my Canon PowerShot with me and played around with capturing different poses of the musicians. My gaze then focused on the building behind the musicians. I scanned it slowly, from bottom to top, through the lens of the camera.

Then up, up, up -– my eyes lingered on the blue sky above the building. A few clouds moved slowly across the horizon. I saw a small white dot next to one; sitting like apostrophe, against the cerulean shaded page of atmosphere. It was 6:00 in the evening. Was this small circle of whiteness in the sky a collection of water droplets that got separated from its core cluster or was it the moon rising?

I became fascinated with the clouds I saw that evening and, for the next week, couldn’t seem to take enough photos of clouds. I took shots from from parks, from the lakefront, from my back deck, and from city streets.

They’re almost always around, but we don’t always notice them. Maybe we will study them if we are planning an outdoor outing and trying to size up the likelihood of rain, but mostly we think about clouds when they are not there, when the sky is clear.

They are made of the same stuff as the sky that surrounds them, but the molecules that compose them manage to differentiate themselves. They’re constantly moving in the sky and changing shape.

No two are exactly alike. I like that. I like the thought of each cloud’s uniqueness.

Just last week, I posted my 200th reflection on gratitude on this blog. Being aware of my Grateful Dozen, (broad categories of things that I know I feel grateful for) has made it easy to identify things I can appreciate in the present moment.

In considering experiences I’ve written about, I can identify common themes, and yet each entry has its own character and primary takeaway. Each moment when I realize how precious something is to me is an aha moment.

I thought I liked clouds because you can see so many different things in their outlines and contours, because they can reflect the mood of their environment, because they are a great metaphor for working in tandem with light.

But I think I am most taken by them because no two are exactly alike and because I know they are only passing through. That a cloud is only in my field of awareness for a short time only makes it more special.

Clouds are perfect reminders to enjoy the present moment – and that’s no small thing.

Tuesdays on the Terrace

Tuesday on the Terrace“Summertime and the living is easy…” That’s how the song goes. That’s what the expectation is.

During the summer, there is no end to pleasures derived from long walks, garage sales, reading in the park or at the beach, and free music. There are big music festivals for blues, jazz and gospel in town. The symphony plays at outdoor venues several times a week during the heart of the season. And then there are regular happenings like Tuesdays on the Terrace.

The Museum of Contemporary Art tries to introduce people to art from the last fifty years by serving up free jazz in a convivial atmosphere. They feature a different performer or group every Tuesday from early June through September. The tactic seems to work. Crowds come to the museum’s terrace, between Lake Michigan and the historic water tower Tuesdays after work during the season.

A section of the terrace is blocked off for reserved dinner seating (kind of pricey fare from a Wolfgang Puck venture) and the museum offers hamburgers and brats, beer and cocktails for purchase underneath the terrace. About 60 metal chairs form neat rows behind the playing area. Large white umbrellas create a little shade for the musicians and the soundman and people bring their own folding chairs or blankets to sit on the lawn below.

I love Tuesdays on the Terrace!

The music is free. Some well-known jazz artists play here during the summer. I also pay special attention during the part of the set when the band members are introduced. I like learning the names of the bass player or guy on vibes. I relish the thought that I may hear them in a cozy club at some time in the future and remember that I first heard them one Tuesday in the summer.

I like the people watching at the venue (also free). Short of getting catty, I will check out what people are wearing, their glasses and hair styles, and categorize folks as tourists or locals. And if they are locals, I’ll even imagine what part of the city they’re from.

I like over-hearing random bits of conversations and am often amazed by how much more open people are to begin an exchange with a stranger when it is sunny or when they have a shared topic to complain about like there not being enough chairs.

And the art is free. The museum offers free admission on Tuesdays. I can’t see re-visiting the same galleries every week, but it’s nice to think that if I arrive early, I can learn about a new artist or check out a visiting exhibition.

Of course, I love the fact that Tuesday on the Terrace is free, but I might be even more enamored with its constancy. I appreciate having a mid-week meeting place and entertainment option all summer long.

I know that on Tuesdays at 5:30, from early June through early September, there will be a jazz performance in the shadows of the sculptures of the giant yellow men at the museum.

Having one place I can count on where I can be uplifted by music and art and talk to someone who lives in high-rise along the lake is no small thing.


Sweet Dreams

bedcover 2I have been having problems falling asleep for months now.

Anyone who has struggled with sleep can probably sympathize with me. It’s easy to take sleep for granted, but when it doesn’t come easily, or in enough quantity, it can dominate your mind.

It’s a simple thing, but a complicated thing; how you can veer off a healthy routine. I gave up caffeine years ago. I try to follow what’s generally considered good sleep hygiene. I sleep in a cool dark room and usually don’t entertain myself in front of a computer screen late at night.

I have tried all sorts of remedies, allopathic and alternative. I have received paid advice from health practitioners and more than a few remedies people found helpful during their own bouts of insomnia.

People have loaned me their favorite brands of melatonin, referred me to acupuncturists and have sworn by oddball tonics such as Greek yogurt and turmeric right before bed.

Expecting to have problems entering the Land of Nod, I started to dread going to bed. This led me to try other tactics. To engage my subconscious mind, I started reading in bed, keeping the light on, as if telling myself I wasn’t trying to fall asleep. I splurged on a new duvet and shams to make my bed an inviting place to be. I started meditating at night.

Was I lacking in some essential nutrients? Did I need to re-calibrate my thyroid meds? Was there a way to re-set my nighttime flow of cortisol that convinced my body I was in a dire situation when I wasn’t? I was unable to identity any subject I was obsessing over after I slipped between the sheets.

Sleep deprivation was taking its toll – on my work, on my driving, on remembering little commitments I usually take pride in getting right. Drugs that used to knock me out were not working any more. I decided to do something I rejected a long time ago; participate in a sleep study.

After a consult, I checked in to the Center for Sleep Medicine at the appointed time. Different parts of my head and body were wired to numerous monitors until I looked like The Bride of Frankenstein.

I filled out some forms and explained to my tech, Horace, yet one more time, that I would undoubtedly not fall asleep. I had gone several days without sleep and could not imagine relaxing while harnessed, as I was, with color-coded wires.

He smiled.

I slept.

The room was too cold for my liking, and I didn’t like the fact that I had to call him to unplug me so I could go to the toilet in the middle of the night. But I didn’t want to leave in the morning when I was in REM sleep. They had their data and wanted to clean the room.

I was more than surprised. I had to settle into the idea of having a different experience than the one I expected. Was there something magical in trying something I had resisted? By wearing various contraptions, did I simply increase and steady the flow of oxygen?

I don’t know what the next steps will be right now, whether I will go back to the acupuncturist or whether I will just wait until I can have a follow-up consult, but in breaking a pattern of expectations, I made a huge step.

Simply believing a new kind of experience is possible is no small thing.

Goodbye — Hello

katerina's2Okay, they offered a very limited wine list and their tonic was usually flat.  (All the more reason for ordering a martini, I suppose.) Still, I loved going to Katerina’s.

It was a great funky jazz bar that featured a lot of favorite Chicago musicians and served real food, not just chicken wings and potato skins.  Decorated with posters of Miles (Davis) and Edith (Piaf) and other icons, it radiated an ambiance that was part 52nd Street in the fifties and part Parisian bordello in the twenties.

It was painted a dark red and, besides photos of the great ones, its walls sported ornately framed mirrors.Table lamps with fur trimmed shades filled alcoves. Narrow at the entrance, it did not really open up much more at the back where they had a small stage and tables for patrons.  Regardless of whether the musicians played to a crowd or not, whether they were featuring gypsy jazz, Balkan folk music, or a big band, Katerina’s always had a lot of soul!

I Googled their calendar when I was planning to host visitors just weeks ago and learned they were closing.  They were making June their farewell month.

I recalled when I first walked past the neon lettering of the storefront’s sign years ago.  Its location, away from fancy downtown eateries and tourist haunts, felt like a real find, a discovery.

I was very wistful about June being its farewell month. Was Katerina’s closing because people like me only patronized the place for special occasions or because they didn’t charge enough or for some other reason?

I went one evening during their last week. They were showing a documentary filmed there a few years earlier and followed up with a couple sets by a female vocalist and saxophonist. Patrons snapped photos with their cellphone cameras. Many platters of fried calamari were shared.

I kept thinking about the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi, the refrain that goes “Don’t it always seems to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Favorite places, your health, relationships… Things die. They disappear. They change.  Changes can be challenging.  It seems natural to resist them.

I tried to find out what was behind Katerina’s closing and couldn’t get an answer that satisfied me.  One local music writer quoted the proprietress as being ready for “a new adventure” after fifteen years of running the club. Was this true?

It felt so sad, so wrong, that an anchor of the neighborhood, an institution that kept jazz alive, accessible, and, dare I say it, COOL for younger generations, was shutting its doors.  I read the article a little further and saw that plans were being made for the space’s new owners to feature some kind of music performance.

While the new place might not be a quirky home to gypsy jazz or the wailing of big band horns, I wanted to think about discovering the special qualities of the new music venue when it opens.

No doubt, it will be perfect for whatever its special qualities are – and it, too, will be close to home — and that’s no small thing.


hanging pot of flowersThe other day, I looked at my hanging planters on my back deck. I had just hung them a few days before, succumbing to peer pressure, I suppose.  Everybody in my new building seems to have something green and beautiful in their private outdoor space.  As the building’s CGO (Chief Gardening Officer) Paula told me when I came home with the pre-wired baskets from Home Depot,  “I knew it was just a matter of time.”

I hadn’t spent as much time as I thought sitting out back, sipping iced tea and reading, but, since I couldn’t take out my garbage or run to my car without seeing my small floral display, I was noticing the flowers were starting to droop. I filled up my new long-spouted green plastic watering can, waited until early evening and gave them a good soaking.

Sure enough, the next day, the two red geranium plants and the yellow moss roses perked up.  They seemed happy. They had revived.

I thought about this. How nice it must be to have such simple needs that a small change can have such a dramatic affect on you; can bring you back to life.  Or, maybe it’s not about having simple needs so much as a question of knowing what affects you, individually, the strongest.

I thought about things that lift my mood or make me feel more alive.  I asked myself what types of things would give me the same feeling a plant would have sitting in the sunshine after getting its roots gently soaked.

Walking away from a source of stress can help — sometimes.  Sometimes, walking away physically actually makes my mental preoccupation stronger.

Taking a shower can often re-set my mood. I think it’s so sensually engaging that it keeps my mind in the present moment.

Laughter and humor often brings me new energy.  Being surprised by something, or taken off guard by a comment or quip, can act as a little reminder that I don’t have everything figured out and that there are opportunities every day to start fresh.

Having a long conversation with Lin or another good friend can definitely uplift my state.  It’s not the content of any particular conversation so much as the feeling that we have a bond.  We know each other very well and accept our differences.

I got to thinking about the different things that revive me and noticed how similar my examples were to my grateful dozen, key themes of things where I notice feeling gratitude naturally.  I think every person should develop their own grateful dozen.  My list includes things like a sense of belonging, or making a discovery in my neighborhood, or beauty.

I guess making a habit of feeling grateful is like getting watered regularly, like getting replenished and revived at the right times.

Remembering to refer back to my Grateful Dozen themes is no small thing.

Hot Dog!

superdqawg mascotsI went to the 57th Street Art Fair the first weekend of June.

I spotted the oil painter from Colorado and the Eastern European print-maker who features barely veiled political themes with an Alice in Wonderland vibe standing under their square tents ready to engage the crowd and, hopefully, sell a little art.  They come every year.

I turned near the raku ceramics artist’s display and walked into a wall of sweet smelling oil. Children scampered around me trying to keep their powdered sugar dusted funnel cakes from sliding off their paper plates.  Man, I thought, I must be close to the food concessions.  I suddenly became hungry for a charred Polish or foot-long dog.

I don’t know that I’m much of a hot dog fan, but I can’t seem to deny myself the urge when at a ballpark or summertime festival.  First, you have to eat a hot dog on the bun it belongs to, and I generally try to avoid eating bread. Then, you have to slather on the appropriate condiments, which can be filled with all sorts of nasty stuff that practically glows in the dark.

But a fully loaded hot dog is so filling -– so complete; blanketed with a long wedge of pickle, tomato bits, chopped onion, and so on.  A Chicago dog, with the works, is like eating a veritable garden in a bun.  A hot dog is oddly satisfying.

Having consumed most of the hot dogs in my life at a ballpark, or zoo, or street fair feels like I’ve shared meals with thousands of others, and I find this oddly satisfying too.

Who’d think so many people would come together over a couple ounces of steamed sausage? But people will often feel very passionate about their dogs.  Different people like to season and decorate them differently, and people will claim loyalties to specific stands or grills.

It’s an innocent enough illusion, thinking your place is unique.  On weekends, I’ve driven by Hot Doug’s and witnessed three-block long lines (supposedly, people wait in line for fries cooked in duck fat).  Do the dogs at Hot Doug’s really taste especially great, or do they just conjure up special memories? Is the appeal that it is a treat you can easily afford?

And having a favorite stand or kiosk or push cart vendor – fans of Superdawg or Gene & Jude’s, or Wolfy’s could argue for eternity about who makes the best, but they all start out with pretty much the same ingredients and use the same process.  Don’t they?

And I love this about eating hot dogs, how they feel special and made-to-order even when they basically consist of pretty unremarkable components. Like everyone on this planet is special and pretty much the same as everyone else.

Eating a hot dog, even just smelling the steam and onions and mustard that surrounds one, and thinking This is summer! Is no small thing.

No Space Wasted

plants by train tracksMy new neighbor Paula likes to garden.  I suppose, in a broader sense, you could say she likes to fill spaces with beautiful things.

I think it’s about more than being out in the sunshine, practicing her squats and digging in the dirt; about handling tools while wearing an apron.  It’s about more than considering the size of a space and what kinds of plants are on sale at Home Depot.

For the first few weekends, when I saw her around the building, it always seemed she had a small spade in her hand and was trying to get something in the ground before the next spring thunder shower.  I admired her industriousness. And yes, I liked the idea of having bushes and ferns and a colorful variety of flowers and ground cover grow just outside my windows without having to supply the labor myself.

I had to wonder Who does she do it for? Why does she do it?

She was away on a business trip when the irises came up. She doesn’t stop planting and tending to her seedlings after filling the last flower box on her deck. She has taken considerable time to make the neighborhood more welcoming and inspire her neighbors to enjoy being outside more.

She even planted a few tall yellow flowers and some bushes along the fence that separates our alley from the train tracks.  I don’t normally think of anything growing along this short, narrow corridor.

Maybe the people in our building only appreciate this special landscaping when we are sitting on our back decks while a train rumbles by.  I doubt that the people on passing trains notice the brief blur of colors while they pass our building. But I have really taken to the notion that something beautiful fills the space.

And even though I prefer simplicity as a decorating philosophy (I positively get itchy nervous when people feel compelled to fill every inch of a wall with a print or etching), I really like the idea of creating and caring for greenery in unexpected places.

It’s a metaphor we could all adopt to a greater extent. Maybe each of us has special talents or even callings that are very individual.  But all of us could consider making whatever space we fill or touch somehow better by giving our best energies, by consciously deciding how we want to fill that space.

There’s no such thing as wasted space if someone is consciously engaged in deciding what to put in that space.

I love looking out from my office window or from my back deck, beyond the parking area and alley and seeing the little strip of three stubby evergreens and a few flowers along the train fence.

Remembering that each of us can determine how we want to fill the spaces around us is no small thing.





Clean Slate

right rear car doorYou’ve probably said it too, mumbled under your breath.

I hate SUVs. I hate SUVs.

You don’t even have had to witness a particular inconsiderate act of aggressive driving to just think about the size and amount of road space they demand. Really?  Is this size of vehicle necessary?

My general distaste towards this class of vehicle got personal the other night.  I was parking in my assigned slot at the east end of the reserved spots at the back of my new building.  I was trying to avoid touching the black behemoth GMC or Highlander on my left and not make contact with the monster green city dumpster on my right.

The dumpster was not pushed as far against the fence as it might have been, and I stopped before attempting to turn in.  I swung as wide on my approach as I could have and hesitated.  I remember thinking that maybe I should try to approach the turn again or try to find a space on the street in the front of my building.

But I thought the angle of approach was good enough, and, by the time I heard the scratching sound, it was too late.

After parking, I jumped out of my car and inspected the wide O-shaped design of green paint on my right rear door.  I felt awful, but there wasn’t much I could do.  I called a few girlfriends hoping they would get me to laugh or, somehow, to feel better.

One friend tried to help me put things into perspective.  She asked, “Did you actually scratch the surface and hit metal, or did you just pick up paint from the dumpster? Try scratching the paint off.”

The next day, I took my floor-washing bucket, filled with mild dish soap and a couple of hearty sponges down my back stairs.  I ran a soaked sponge over the big “O.”  Not a speck of paint came off.  Then I ran my thumbnail over the swatch of door streaked with green paint; slowly at first, then more briskly.  I noticed the paint cake up behind my thumbnail. Then I wiped the silver metal door down with soapy water.

After a while, rubbing my nail against the door, the green paint came off.  I couldn’t see any deep gouges that could invite rust.  After twenty minutes of scratching the paint-flecked section of the door then rinsing the area, it looked like I had lifted all the evidence of the contact.

What was I supposed to learn from this?  To stop completely when I hesitate? To consider getting a smaller, more city friendly car? Whenever I do something that results in something unexpected, I assume that the lesson contained in the experience has something to do with a failing of mine.

Then I recalled playing stickball on Winston Drive when I was a kid.  I recalled the feeling of freedom and liberation I experienced when I felt I had not made a good effort and the other kids agreed that my turn could be “done over.”  Repeated.

We all invoked the law of Do Overs for each other from time to time.  It felt good to get a second chance, to start with a clean slate.

This was a better feeling than assuming the most important lesson in the experience was about a flaw in me.  A better lesson to take from the incident is about being grateful for second chances.  We can give them to ourselves all the time.

Having a paint-free car door after a parking challenge, starting with a clean slate after anything doesn’t turn out as planned, is no small thing.



carefully painted wallsI moved the other week.  Or, maybe I should simply admit I am still in the process of moving.  I survived the major milestone of hiring a truck and four strapping young men to transport my furnishings and most of my clothes to my new residence but still seem to remember things to go back to the old place for.

Between my closing date and Mother’s Day, when the four rent-a-sherpas miraculously emptied one place of my earthly possessions and deposited things at my new second floor flat nearby, I had the whole place painted.

A Guatemalan handyman my real estate agent used for many of his clients, along with his diminutive wife (who spoke few words of English), painted my new digs from entry hall to back deck.  I liked him right away.  His rates were very reasonable and he showed me all his receipts. He obviously took pride in his work.

He ran frog tape where the ceiling met the walls so he could guarantee clean lines.  His wife seemed born to paint.  I don’t think they used a drop cloth or newspapers at all, yet they kept the floors clean.  Both were ever so careful about how they loaded their brushes with paint and how they prepared surfaces.

I visited most afternoons to see the progress.  I was amazed at how they painted the trim, the wood around the glass on the French doors; how they took apart and re-assembled the ceiling fans.  Notwithstanding Nery’s sense of craftsmanship and pride, a few mishaps took place.

While painting the bathroom ceiling, he balanced himself on the porcelain top to the vanity resulting in an eight-inch diagonal crack that looked like the corner would come off.  He showed me the crack and replaced the whole top, at his expense.

“You have to be careful,” he advised.  “I wouldn’t let a workman balance himself like that.  I should not have done it.  You have to be careful….” he repeated.

I thought about what he meant, then I contemplated the word often in the days that followed. Careful.

It seems automatic that people want to exercise caution when mistakes can be (financially) costly, or if correcting a mistake might involve a time-consuming process to make things right.

But that is more about fear of consequences than it is about care.  Care is about doing something from the heart, imbuing an act with your best intentions; with love.

Sometimes, I wish people, myself included, would be more careful about the words they choose to express.  I don’t mean that they should agonize over possible interpretations and not speak up for fear of having regrets.

But I think that if you start out from a place of real love and caring, a good understanding will be reached anyway.  It’s always worth trying to focus on positive feelings instead of problematic consequences. Maybe it won’t safeguard you against mistakes, but it will ensure a better experience.

Knowing the difference between careful and fearful is no small thing.


The Hardest Thing

piano 2Seven months ago, I was sadly shaken when a young cousin and her husband of only two years were killed in a senseless car accident.  My worry quotient amped up exponentially when a good friend of mine, who amazingly survived ovarian cancer years ago, found herself again sorting her way through treatment options provided by the County.

My sense of isolation and uncertainty seemed slight in comparison, yet, following the subtleties and depth of my feelings leading me to the decision to break up with my partner has been the hardest thing I can remember personally facing.

After nearly three years of feeling I had become a poster child for finding love over fifty and, after recognizing I enjoyed so many aspects of my life with John, I noticed the occasional twinges that something didn’t feel right became more frequent.

I examined my capacity for love and forgiveness, two streams that need to run without interruption, I think, if one is to live happily with another and at peace with oneself. I asked myself if I was expecting too much from a relationship. Didn’t I just want to be myself?  Didn’t I just want the safe company of another soul seeking the same kind of acceptance, encouragement and space to flourish?

There was no doubt in my mind that a great deal of love filled our house. I know this because I saw how often I was surprised by my feelings. (I relished our small routines; a morning kiss before John headed off to work, or how often I emailed afternoon pick me-ups, YouTube clips or Dilbert comic strips, just when I thought he might need a lift.)

I also saw that we had a widely divergent sense of what being with another meant, of what it meant to share a life. It sounds flimsy to say, that no one perspective is wrong, and yet wanting something your partner does not see as necessary, or would not even attempt to put into words, makes it’s hard not to conclude that something is not right.

So, I refused to believe that wanting a level of communion beyond the tenderness found in our shared experiences meant I was a untenably needy and dysfunctional, and I couldn’t bear to make someone I loved, who tried so hard to “do the right thing” feel wrong or inadequate either because he didn’t pick up on many of my emotional cues.

Over months, I tried to find a way to language this understanding and broker a kind settlement of our household and a kind resolution to our situation. Perhaps this was impossible to hope for.  In wanting to leave the relationship, even as I was concerned for his feelings, I was rejecting him. In being afraid to express all the things I felt, which made him unspeakably uncomfortable, I became unable to fall asleep.

It’s all in the open now; as much as we can communicate. I am moving to a new place shortly. My new home (a condo) is here in this neighborhood I’ve come to love.  I hope I may yet come over as a guest, as a friend, and sit on the back deck and indulge in a bleu cheese burger fresh off the grill this summer.

We are both trying to give each other space and find new boundaries despite our history of intimacy. I am giving him my piano when I leave. I think he’ll like that.

It’s not for lack of love, but I’ve opted to follow a stronger impulse to be aligned with my truth.  I believe he’s sad about this parting but also relieved. He wants to live his truth as well.

Loving someone and letting him go is no small thing.

Clean Sheets

bed at joy'sI think I got this notion from my mother (where so many of my ideas about proper household routines come from).  You should change your bed sheets every two weeks during winter months and change them once a week during warm weather months.

Notwithstanding the advent of thermostats and central air conditioning, I seem to carry on this tradition pretty faithfully.

Washing sheets is a special type of household chore.

No one sees the state of your sheets — except you.

I know I can go a couple extra days, but I love the feeling of slipping between the covers of a bed that wears freshly laundered and tautly stretched sheets.

Along with being able to order room service, I think sleeping in a bed with clean sheets is high on the list of perks associated with hotel stays.

I have been housesitting for a friend who is out of the country.  I’ve been sorting her mail and re-filling her backyard birdfeeder with seed, but I have been clear about household chores that simply will wait for her return. Learning how to operate her washing machine to freshen my sheets was not on my “Not to do” list.

I like how clean sheets smell.  I like the feel of their smoothness on my skin.  I like how you can barely see a wrinkle in their surface.  It’s as if sleeping on an undisturbed surface invites you to have undisturbed rest.

And I’ll think about the first moments of crawling into a freshly made bed in slow motion; how even ten year-old linens feel like new once they’ve been washed and fluffed up in the dryer.  Or better yet, how grand it is to sleep in a bed made with sheets that have been line dried in the backyard of a country house.  Just the image of the sheets undulating in the wind is enough to assure you sweet dreams.

I like knowing that the moment of climbing into my bed with clean sheets is a moment of my making.  I am responsible for the labor.  I am also responsible for breathing deeply in the moment; for breathing in the moment.

I pulled the old sheets off the bed at Joy’s, set the washing machine for hot, transferred them to the dryer and retrieved them at just the right time, before they tumbled into a hot, hopeless pile of creases.  Then I smoothed the fitted bottom sheet over the mattress and covered the top sheet with a quilt.  ( I don’t like the confinement of hospital corners.)

Then I opened the window and pulled the peach colored sheets up to my chin. I felt gloriously warm and cool at the same time –- and new.  Somehow, it felt like like Sunday, a different kind of beginning to the week.

Recognizing that clean sheets is one way to experience a fresh start is no small thing.

Hiding Places

purse with zipper compartment-closeJust weeks ago, I sat in my car and watched my breath form little clouds of vapor between my face and the dashboard.  My coat was warm, but I ran out of the house without a scarf or gloves. I was cold and resigned to being cold for a while — or maybe not.

I opened the glove compartment. Ta-dah.  Hard to believe, but I actually had slipped a pair of black knit gloves into my glove compartment several weeks ago  — just for occasions like this.  I squirreled away a small box of Kleenex in the car console too.

What a great idea — having hiding places.

I’ll stash a twenty in the bottom drawer of my night table for emergencies, for when I want to go out and not have to find a Cash Station first.

I’ll stick slips of papers with notes and questions into the inside of the book jacket of my current reading project so that I can refresh my mind on what I want to take away from my reading time.

I keep an extra couple rolls of toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom so that I will never run out.

I’ve taped a spare key to my back door under the deck.

I have a zipper compartment in my purse where I keep my drivers license and primary credit card so I can keep them separate from less frequently used cards and pull them out quickly.

I have a secret computer directory that stores a file where I keep a list of all my user names and passwords; secret as in it’s not called Online Passwords or something like that.

I keep a book of Rumi poetry on the bottom shelf of a seldom examined bookcase because I always want to know it’s there.

I have hiding places for my college yearbook, for old love letters, and for trash magazines I like to read when I am sick. I keep a box of extension cords in the basement, six and twelve footers, in case I want to power a heating pad and nurse myself on the couch in front of the BIG TV.

When I reached for the pair of knit gloves in my glove compartment, I smiled.  I recalled my secret hiding place precisely when I needed the gloves.

I realized I have hiding places for emergencies, for spare objects that I always want in supply.  I have hiding places for guilty pleasures, for objects that I don’t want others to know about for fear of judgment. I also have hiding places for things that I want to keep to myself like old journals and photographs.

It’s wonderful to have little hiding places in your life.  It’s amazing to remember them, considering how seldom they may be used, at the exact time you need what you’ve hidden there.

Remembering where you keep your passport or your mother’s antique ring is no small thing.

Commitment by Degree

hold shelf 2I must have read a book review in the New York Times or some source whose recommendations I like to consider. The book, Andrew’s Brain, is by E.L. Doctorow, a favorite author, and just came out a few months ago. Since my current book budget is strictly paperback, not hard cover, I decided to check on availability from my library.

God bless the CPL (Chicago Public Library).  They have a pretty big catalog and even feature some new releases.  I reserved Andrew’s Brain and received an email notice that the book would be waiting for me on the HOLD shelf of my local branch for the next nine days.

How wonderful, I thought, I can order a book without buying it (to see if it is really as compelling as the review claims); I have up to nine days to actually pick it up (enabling myself to evaluate how important my reading life is in the context of my other obligations); and I don’t even have to pay for -– OWN—the book.  I don’t have to decide immediately if it merits my time or personal shelf space.

I love reading – but I really love this model for reading.  And this model applies to other things too.  Commitment by degree.

There seems to be some things in life where you feel an immediate resonance. Maybe a new hair style, or an afternoon with a close friend, or an outfit you see at a store….and your whole being screams YES. Yes, I want to do more of this, have more of this, adopt this as how I present myself to the world.

Then there are times when you feel yes, but not YES in capital letters.  You have doubts, or you want to experience a sampling before making a full investment.

These days, we can put an item we find shopping on hold or even return it within a short period of taking it home. We can lease a car to build up a comfort level, or affinity, for its handling.  We can rent an apartment to develop a feeling for a neighborhood before we mortgage our future on a purchase. People have coffee dates when they aren’t ready to spend a whole evening with a fix-up.

In our culture, we have learned it is perfectly acceptable to develop commitment by degrees.

These trial periods can be wonderful opportunities to consider our priorities and ask ourselves what we really want. It feels like we also have to learn not to take this sorting through period as an excuse for not making any commitment. It’s not a great idea to stay on permanent hold.

As I looked over the books on the hold shelf at the library, I wondered why people chose the books they reserved. Why did I choose Andrew’s Brain?  I also asked myself if I will actually make the time to read the book or return it, unread, before its due date because I made such a small investment?

What I want from a choice is worth contemplating.

Being aware of whether what I value lives within a small commitment and whether I expect that commitment to grow is no small thing.




Welcome the the NEW Old World

cow at genesOver the front window of Gene’s Sausage Shop and Delicatessen is a painted cow. The vibe of this display statue does not make you conjure up a cowbell wearing dairy cow. Its unadorned, take it as you see it, look is strictly beefy. The store, an anchor in the neighborhood, is a family-run butcher shop — and more.

Before I moved nearby, I would visit the Lincoln Square neighborhood once a year. I’d park myself under a large tent, cum portable beer hall, during Octoberfest and watch the local seniors drag out their lederhosen and feathered hats and mingle with the white bred twenty-somethings that were always up for a good party.

Founders John and Gene (the Gene in Gene’s) Luszcz were Polish.  They started their butcher shop and deli in the 70’s in a more Polish neighborhood nearby.  They bought this larger space on Lincoln Avenue across from Timeless Toys and Stanley Brown Jewelers from Delicatessen Meyer in 2007. The area was, and still is, largely German.

Polish or German, it’s definitely Old World. Shopping at Gene’s is so un-Target, so un-superstore. I think I fell in love with the place the first time I walked under the cow.

As you enter, on your right is a small, colorful produce section. They don’t feature much of a variety, and the prices are high, but every mushroom and rutabaga looks like it was hand picked by the owner of the farm where it grew.

Just to the left of the sliding doors is the two-register checkout where two white-capped, freshly scrubbed clerks are freakishly efficient in getting customers through the commercial side of their visit. To the far left is a case of pastries suitable for a Viennese konditorei, a bodacious deli counter with great Luszcz family versions of Hunter’s Stew and potato pancakes, and an incredible meat selection that features over 40 varieties of sausages. Made on the premises, of course.

The red take-a-number dispenser is always surrounded. Sample trays of smoked meats alongside a dish of toothpicks helps keep the customers happily occupied until their number is called.

In the center aisle, they stack a wonderland of candies and packaged treats from favorite, high-end, European manufacturers. I’ve contemplated buying Gluckschwein (pig-shaped) marzipan and bottle-shaped foil wrapped chocolates filled with liqueur.

The second floor is a treasure house filled with imported wines and beers from smaller production houses as well as jars of specialty items like caraway seed sauerkraut and lingonberry preserves.

The other day, I came for lamb shoulder so I could make a stew. I had to laugh at the sign behind the glass case in the butcher shop. OUR BEEF WAS RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS OR HORMONES.  Well isn’t this something? I thought. Even an Old World butcher shop has to re-invent itself for a 21st century customer.

Before I left, I wandered around upstairs. There were so many things I had never seen before.

I like to shop at certain stores because I can easily find what I’m looking for.  Other stores are great because I can find things I couldn’t have imagined looking for.

Being able to buy a box of lucky pig shaped marzipan is no small thing.

Big Screen

moviegoersJust like in late January, when commercials promote front row views for the Super Bowl. during March Madness, NCAA tournament time, Sunday papers and TV ads will hawk extra wide screen TVs.  You’ll be reminded to Catch all the action, or Make your neighbors jealous by filling your living room with a TV screen so wide passersby can see what your family is watching through your front window.

I must say, after spending most of my television watching life in front of a 19” inch Sony (Do you remember tube technology?), I have enjoyed watching sports and movies in the comfort of my home on a 55” flat screen.  (I have not mastered the intricacies of having four different remotes, but it hasn’t been hard to appreciate the super-sized screen.)

Televisions and home theaters have gotten so sophisticated and choices have gotten so expansive between TIVOed or DVRed network shows, cable and satellite broadcasts, DVDs and computer streaming options, I have lost some of my mojo for going out to take in a show.

But not completely.

The other week, I went to see the new Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, at a local Cineplex. The movie was full of whimsy and surprises, such as walk-on roles by very familiar actors, but I wasn’t only entranced by the creativity and spell of the story and cinematography. I really grokked on the whole going out to the movies experience.

I usually skip the popcorn and bladder blaster-sized soft drinks, but I like the adrenaline rush of getting to my seat on time. This means leaving the house by a certain time, parking the car, taking some allowances for how crowded I think the theater will be and how many coming attractions I am willing to sit through. I will usually try to make a show before six o’clock to qualify for a discount, but I’m not prepared to pretend I’m a senior yet and qualify for that discount too.

I like the ritual of picking out a seat. I have my own process. It takes vantage point and distance into account, also whether I think the folks nearby are going to talk through the entire movie.

I like the comfy, Velour upholstered seats. I like seeing movies on a really big screen; for nuanced close-ups and for the sense of being in the middle of the action.

But the thing I like best is watching a movie with other people at the same time, the communal experience of going to the movies.  In our modern world, I am not sure doing things as a community is valued much any more.

I like sharing an experience – as it’s happening. I am not interested in just relaying an experience to someone later or tweeting a cryptic message to people I am loosely connected with, letting them know what I saw and whether it was worth waiting in line for a ticket.

To me, it’s a great feeling to catch myself flinching at a particularly in your face moment and see whether other people have a similar reaction. I even like, while waiting in line to buy my ticket, trying to guess which of 12 different films the people in front of me are planning to see. I love thinking about my fellow moviegoers, who are on dates or family outings, joining other couples or groups.

Seeing something on the big screen – sharing a movie-going experience – is no small thing.

Ringing Doorbells

Schiavone-03Chicago is a political town, to say the least.  Mayor Daley (Senior) had an organization that practically guaranteed his plans received no opposition; “the machine.”  His son, who actually served more years in office (22), ran things pretty much the same way.

Rahm Emmanuel, former Obama Chief of Staff, is now at the helm of city politics and seems to be running a pretty well oiled machine himself.  Sometimes it seems that outcomes on most civic issues are pretty predictable. Then again, there are special issues, neighborhood issues, where it feels like you can make a difference.

Primaries were just held. I wanted to vote, but to be honest, I didn’t know much about most of the candidates let alone the judges who were up for re-appointment.  There was a hodgepodge of newcomers amid familiar surnames on the ballot.

My front door mat was decorated with flyers almost nightly for the past two weeks.     I became leery of picking up the phone between 4:00 and 9:00. It was usually a partisan automated call reminding me to vote.

At 2:00 on primary day, when the bell rang, I still had not traveled the few blocks to my polling place to vote. I was doing online research on a non-political matter and was fighting a cold. It was only a primary, I considered.  I was losing my motivation to walk the four short blocks.

As soon as the bell rang, I knew it would be someone canvassing my area, reminding me where my new polling place was. I opened the door, hoping to keep the conversation polite and short.

I did a doubletake when I saw who was ringing my doorbell. It was Nancy Schiavone, mom of an almost teen, a local lawyer, who was running for state representative against a well-connected and better-funded incumbent.

I attempted to make a joke, maybe to mask my surprise. I thought the days where candidates stumped for themselves was long-gone.

“You look just like the woman in the flyer,” I said and winked.

She gave me a 30 second introduction. I confessed she was one of the few people on the ballot I actually was prepared to vote for, largely on the basis of my former alderman Scott Waguespack’s and Congressional Representative Jan Schakowsky’s endorsements. She told me about her independent stance on many issues and concern about local schools. I thanked her for stopping by and assured her I knew where my new polling place was.

Before I closed the door and she scooted one door south, she called out, ‘Take care of your cold, now.”

No doubt about it, I rediscovered my motivation. I voted at 4:00. I was disappointed, two days later, to learn that she lost to the incumbent.  But for days, I smiled about the exchange. She was passionate and professional – and very human.

Being a candidate for anything and ringing doorbells yourself is no small thing.




gasgrill 1I have been very emotional lately.  I have made some decisions over the past few months that I have not been able to put into action.  I’ve also been reminded to be patient, that things happen in God’s time and that I can’t rush some things.

Not seeing direct results is usually difficult for me.  Not seeing my intentions manifest quickly can make me question a decision or my will.  Shouldn’t something be happening by now? I’ll think.  How will I know when an intention has taken root if I don’t have the goal in hand?

In the spiritual tradition I follow, both effort and grace are cited as important ingredients to a contented life.  Both need to be present in order to achieve the most worthy goals. When I got together with friends recently, we discussed the concept of praying running. I think there’s a similar implication here.

It’s important to pray for what you want, to clarify your mind about your values and your heart’s desires, to get out of your small self and connect with greater forces to move you in the most beneficial direction. It’s also important that your actions are aligned. It’s understood that it would be hard to lose weight if you consume a couple packages of Little Debbie Snack Cakes everyday.

So I think I had this emotional meltdown a few weeks ago because I forgot things are in process.  I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t find enough girlfriends to cry to on the phone, was not perked up by art or interested in many things that usually delight me.  Changes (deep changes) are taking root now even though the routines of my life have not seemed to alter much.

Conflicted emotions, anxiety and doubt, have been occupying my mind the same way mounds of snow had come to occupy my front steps, the back alley, my yard and deck. It has felt impossible do get out of my home this long, cold, snowy season, and it felt impossible to contain my emotions any longer, my anxiety that things weren’t happening fast enough, my doubt whether the seeds I planted would bud at all. I sunk into a sort of despair.

Then, the other week, I noticed the sound of water trickling down the gutters at the sides of our building.  It meant ice was melting on the roof. I still wore a hooded jacket when I went out, but I wasn’t afraid my car would get stuck in the deeply rutted and grooved alley. And John’s black tarp-covered gas grill that was totally buried under snow since December -– I am now able to see it when I walk out the back door.

My emotional meltdown came about because I was trying to keep a lot in.  Maybe I even was afraid that someone would judge me for what I felt. I had to remember I was entitled to feel what I felt.  Being sad didn’t mean I wasn’t grateful. It took me a while to get to this point.

And the meltdown in my backyard came about in its own time too.  Regardless of what the calendar says and what the average temperature is supposed to be, sometimes I have to remember spring will come — when it’s ready.

Accepting that the end of a season or the end of an emotional winter happens in its own time is no small thing.


Finally Here

coffee_donuts1For weeks, no – it’s been months since I agreed to conduct my Attitude of Gratitude workshop for my friend Shari’s adult education group at her church.  Since keeping up this blog for almost four years, I have become keen on the idea of teaching what I’ve learned about gratitude.

I wrote and scripted a new outline. I designed and copied new handouts.  I practiced using my outline without reading it. I couldn’t wait. And then the first of two Sunday classes was finally here.

I quickly discovered the group’s habits, more than my well-rehearsed outline, determined how our hour went.

First, we observed the ritual of coffee and donuts, an oddly holy community rite observed after some discussion on who would probably show up a little late.  I introduced some new theories about approaching gratitude as a mindfulness practice and not as an inventory exercise (counting one’s blessings).

I collected email addresses and sent out mid-week notes to see if anyone had questions about my suggestion to consider themes of things they were grateful for.

And then on the second Sunday of my two-part class, after donuts and the distribution of clean coffee cups, I conducted a check-in to see how the class did with my assignment. While I got the impression they thought more about what they were grateful for during the past week than they might have normally, they didn’t exactly follow my assignment to the letter.

I was unsure whether they got the essence of my mindfulness approach to keeping a gratitude practice until I invited the class to write a little about how one of their gratitude themes could be found in a recent everyday experience.

One young man shared about an unexpected moment of pure love he had with his nine year-old son over watching a Harry Potter movie.  A housewife explained how she noticed how proud (and grateful) she was about her own creativity in adapting a recipe for granola bars to use less sugar.

Another man, who was quiet the previous week, talked about how much he enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics on TV.  After a few follow-up reflection questions, it surfaced that he appreciated the technology that made the experience possible, the example of hard work the athletes displayed, and his ability to share the event with his family.  He felt he was building memories and was very grateful for that.

The long anticipated class did not go exactly as I had planned, but it was clear that most group members got something out of it.  And I had to remember that whatever they got was perfect.

I am glad I fretted a little about getting things right and am glad that right wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.

Anticipation with detachment is no small thing.

Come Rain or Come Shine

rainy creek roadI had enough of snow, of shoveling, of gray skies, of scouring through my front hall closet and coat pockets to make sure I had a pair of matching gloves for the day.  I was tired of worrying about whether my car would be able to navigate through icy streets or alleys narrowed by the sooty remains of last week’s blizzard.

I also was not occupied with a work assignment, and I always find it hard to take a break when I have not been making money.  It seems that I either have the money or the time.

Having friends in different places helps in the decision-making process, as does having soon to elapse airline miles. After experiencing far too much winter these past few months, I made a short notice decision to visit my friend in sunny Sonoma.

After clearing my plans with her and discussing if she could take a few days off from work during my visit, I felt compelled to check out the 10-day weather forecast for her area. I saw that a lot of rain was predicted for the duration of my trip.

Of course, this did not stop me. I desperately needed sun, but California desperately needed rain.  In some ways, I was disappointed, but I was also amused by the irony.  Up until my arrival, the area had received less than half of its normal rainfall for the season.  I think over five inches fell between my arrival and my departure.

During the week, I had to pick my spots to enjoy being outside. I took a few walks and sat on a few terraces and saw the sun caressing the beautiful vine ribbed hills of Sonoma County and surrounding areas. But even under gray clouds, there were still so many things to enjoy.

On my second day, I sipped champagne overlooking a beautiful garden and watched the antics of a hummingbird. It was about 68 degrees. I spent most of my third day in my pajamas reading in bed. The gray skies and constant drizzle made this the perfect choice. On Thursday, Lin and I drove to town and trekked to the Bartholomew Park Winery, not an especially challenging hike, the round trip was still probably over seven miles.

We spent most of the afternoon swapping stories with the tasting room host and the former mayor of Sonoma. It rained again Friday, and we braved driving the back roads, raw and beautiful with stones and fallen branches from the week’s heavy rainfalls, to visit the Hess Collection, one of the world’s largest private collections of contemporary art. It happened to be on the grounds of one of Napa’s finest wineries.

The euphemism “Good for nothing” ran through my mind although I felt I was getting the opposite lesson. Whatever IS – is always good for something.

If it’s sunny, it’s good for picnics, hiking, bicycling, or looking for ladybugs. If it’s rainy or cloudy, it’s good for movies, museums, reading, catching up on phone calls or dancing to old Al Green songs.  (Yes, my bestie and I performed a little dance therapy as we slid around her living room to the soulful organ and horn licks of “Love and Happiness.”)

Remembering your mood is not dependent on the weather or a particular circumstance and that whatever IS — is good for something — is no small thing.

Windows and Doors

back door 2…. Close the language-door, and open the love-window. The moon won’t use the door, only the window.   (From Some Kiss, Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi)


I saw a play the other week. It was about an impetuous cross-cultural love affair between a self-absorbed, slightly brash American do-gooder woman and a seemingly gentle Tibetan physician.  The story of their relationship was dotted with references to famous Rumi lines, including a few from one of my favorite poems, Some Kiss.

As an audience member, I wondered a little what Rumi’s words about sacred union had to do with the characters’ actions. As a fan of Rumi, I was reminded again about his wonderful indirect way of speaking. As a writer, my head filled with thoughts about windows and doors.

While there are many categories and styles of windows and doors, I’d venture that most of our associations involve metaphors.  We’ll often use use images of doors and windows to represent other things.  And how we speak of interacting with windows and doors, in the physical world, seems to crystalize turning points in our paths or important perspectives.

Definitions describe both as concrete structures that can be opened or closed to control access. Each structure has different styles. Doors can be hinged or sliding or revolving, overhead or overlapping styles.  Windows can be stained glass, casement style, double paned, transom style, louvered or made for vehicles.  Skylights are also considered windows.

Doors can be swung or cracked open, slammed closed or simply shut tightly. Windows can be clear or foggy, ventilating or stifling, protective or flimsy (as barriers).

Doors and windows are unique types boundaries. And don’t we tend to define ourselves nearly as much by our boundaries as we do by our qualities? Windows and doors are thresholds to different experiences.

There are doors to … one’s heart, to consciousness, to wisdom, to freedom. Open doors can signify hope, new opportunities. Closed doors can signify mystery, or privacy, or punctuate our decisions as reaching points of no return.

The image of a window is often used to suggest fresh air, moving in a new direction, curiosity or the ability to see the essence of something.  Images of windows often are used to represent people’s psyches. They can be fragile or transparent or without guile and pretense.

Now, as I am thinking about doors and windows, I am thinking about the metaphorical and the concrete. Sensing there is a window or a door between me and something or someone or some understanding seems only to matter relative to my position and my beliefs. Am I inside or outside? Can I traverse the threshold at will or do I feel bound and restricted by it?

Sensing the significance of a boundary is important. Believing I’m capable of moving beyond one is no small thing.






carseat aerial 2The other evening, my seventeen year-old niece came over to pick up a dress she ordered online from J. Crew. She has given out my address before.

Since I work from home and am around most afternoons, it’s a pretty safe bet that packages delivered here will be hustled indoors quickly and are safe from curious neighbors. Can’t say I mind the visits either.

The dress was a sleeveless number, in a wine color, short but not too short, with a surplice neckline that seemed to be inviting me to lend her my cream colored cameo again. She bought it as a bridesmaid dress to wear to her sister’s wedding originally planned for this spring.

“Try it on,” I suggested. I think she was happy to oblige. I didn’t have to ask a second time.

She emerged from the bathroom in the new dress with her back towards me, asking me to zip up and hook the top hook on the back. She looked pleased. The color complemented her skin tones and the style was sophisticated without making her look like she was trying to appear older than she was.

“It fits pretty well,” she reported.  “Maybe I’ll just have the shoulders taken up a little.”

And then I thought about all kinds of things that fit. I thought about Goldilocks and her unannounced visit to the house of the three bears; how chairs or beds can be too short or too hard. I thought about Russian matryoshka dolls, nesting dolls, and how so many multiples can fit inside a hollowed out mama doll.

I discovered there is a web page on tumblr, Things Fitting Perfectly into Other Things. It displayed a photo gallery of objects that fit into other objects. Often taken for granted, I realized how great it is that shower heads fit into stainless hooks anchored above tile stall walls, how Murphy beds fold up into walls, how pillar candles can fit into jars, how tall boxes of cereal can still fit between shelves in kitchen cabinets.

It seems like a mini miracle – when things fit. Our lives are full of complex relationships. Often, for something to fit us, some other pieces or parts have to fit each other.

Then, of all things, I thought about my car seat, how it seems to fit me. The same car seat also fits a soccer mom, a gangly teen, and a dynamo cell phone toting businessman.

Not only can car seats be moved closer or further from the steering wheel, over the years, they’ve broadened the array of adjustments a driver can make.  I can raise or lower the seat so that I can see over the dash more easily. I can shorten or extend the angle of the back support because I prefer an upright driving posture. I know some car seats can be ordered with bun warmers to reduce the dread factor involved in climbing into a car on a cold winter morning.

Maybe it’s a silly thing to get excited about, but when I think about things fitting me, I get happy thinking about my car seat.  (Did someone say road trip?)

Being able to sit for hours comfortably while moving towards a destination is no small thing.


2 shovels - 4When I was younger, so much younger than today (I never needed)
I never needed anybody’s help in any way (now)
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured (and now I find)
Now I find, I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors  … Lennon-McCartney


I recently contacted some friends and business contacts for some marketing advice.  Valerie made some very insightful suggestions about an introductory letter I was about to send to a new market segment. Josh, who I don’t really know except that I guest posted on his blog, spent over ninety minutes with me on the phone.

They were more than happy to help.

My upstairs neighbor (tenant) came to my rescue when back-to-back blizzards made navigating down our alley pretty much impossible.  He pushed my Jetta (not an especially light car) back into the garage when I got stuck in a snowdrift by the garbage cans.

My shoveling load was made much easier when John, my housemate, went on snow patrol with me; him grabbing the small shovel, chiseling through the ice, clearing a path and then salting the stairs while I used the big shovel to clear the fluffy stuff from our back deck and parking pad.  I was in a hurry to get shoveling done before a predicted thirty-degree drop in temperature was due, and I was so thankful for the help.  We got the job done in half the time and did it better too!

Helping someone is a natural impulse, almost a reaction when someone asks. I don’t think twice when someone asks me to refill a glass or check my watch for them or spell a word or hold a bag of groceries while they look for their keys.  I actually like to be of service.  I think most people do. I think most people like to do things for other people, if it’s within their power to do what’s asked of them.

Thanking someone for a small consideration is a rich experience for everyone.

How often have I asked someone who is taller than I am to get me something stored above my reach?  How often have I asked a guest at a dinner party to help me serve so that I could get every body’s entrée to them at the same time?  Or unclasping the small ring on the back of a necklace? I don’t know why jewelry that I can put on myself seems to require an assistant for removal, but I often need help.

Of course I try to do things myself. I don’t like feeling obligated to anyone.  I like to demonstrate myself as self-sufficient. Sometimes, I have gone to great lengths not to involve others in my personal challenges. Yet…

Asking for what I need can be a great exercise in seeking clarity in my own mind.  (What do I really want in this situation?) It can also represent a willingness to be vulnerable –- in the best possible way.  It can be taken as an invitation to reciprocate, to be of service to the person I ask help from, which is something I like to do. Rather than focusing on something that’s missing, asking for help is like declaring that I know what I need, that I may be able to get there, but I could do things so much better or easier with help.

It’s taken a while, but I’ve learned that asking for help is not a sign of helplessness.  It’s about not wanting to go through life alone. Asking for help is being willing to participate in fuller web of relationships, person to person and within a community.

I am always grateful for help that is respectfully offered and delivered in the spirit of compassion and generosity.  I have come to appreciate the clarity and openness involved in reaching out and asking.

Being ready to ask for help and seeing that life can be easier and richer because others ably and sincerely want to help is no small thing.

A Night Wallowing in the Blues

lil ed copyWe stood awkwardly at the hostess’s stand.

“Look again,” we urged the slim blond to review the guest list on her computer screen.  “We won the tickets in a WDCB giveaway.”

The claim happened to have been true.  And, after having won other pairs of concert tickets before where we couldn’t attend because of schedule conflicts, we had a hard time believing we were really going to cash in on the freebie.

John, who actually won the tickets, almost apologized when he asked me if I’d like to go.  Lil’ Ed has been around for years and years. The set would probably be pretty predictable stuff. But I liked the venue, which was smallish, and I love seeing LIVE music and – what can I say – FREE is always good. There was a good pizza place I wanted to try next to the venue, so it was pretty much a no-brainer.

For a few moments, a little anxiety swept over me.  What if they didn’t find our name on the guest list? I saw John was mentally preparing some sort of leveraging argument like name-dropping the person at the radio station who confirmed the prize tickets, but the hostess just said, “I believe you. It’s not that full anyway,” and led us to our choice of tables near the back.

Lil’ Ed Willams, who stood maybe five foot four not counting his iconic colorful cap (sort of like a fez without fringe) was accompanied by his half brother Pookie Young on bass, Mike Garrett on rhythm guitar, and Kelly Littleton on drums -– the Blues Imperials.  They had been playing together about 25 years.  Anyone who went to summer music festivals about town must have seen the act at least a few times.

I had seen them before, but the specifics eluded me. I must have been more interested in the event than their musicianship.  Here, between the brick walls of this small, suburban club, I found myself very conscious of EVERYTHING.

I guessed them to be about my age. (I later Googled Lil’ Ed’s bio and saw that he was, in fact, only one year older.) I studied their outfits and tried to think of a word for their look, but each band member had such a distinctive appearance. Pookie, a gentle giant of a man, wore a sort of dark brown leisure suit, which created an unusually spacious background for watching the small and precise movements his thumb made along his bass’s strings. The drummer wore a bowling shirt.  He could have been sent by central casting to play a small time loan shark from Gotti’s neighborhood in Queens.

And they dazzled!

They performed a two-hour set, mixing blues standards with their own compositions. Lil’ Ed did not take up time chatting with the audience.  Yet, finely decked out in his Sunday going to meeting suit and shimmering cap, he gave quite a show!  He rolled his eyes theatrically and managed to get the most soulful sounds out of his slide covered pinky finger. Mike Garrett’s right hand, at times, became a blur. Pookie shuffled his weight from side to side, his eyes closed. He was in a zone. And through his steady beat and perfect touch with the high hat, I never forgot about Littleton, whose face I couldn’t even see from Table 33.

I have been feeling sort of blue lately.  Too much snow.  Too much time spent indoors. Too aware that I am in between different phases in my life. Going to hear a night of live blues was just the thing.

Why does it seem that wallowing in the minor chords and steady rhythms of the blues feels so right?

There is so much room to improvise within such a steady, reliable structure. Isn’t that a little like life? I wondered what it was like for The Imperials to play the same songs so often, the same chords, the same notes, looking for the same cues from each other.

Each performance is different while our longing to hear our own heartbeat within the music doesn’t change – and that’s no small thing.



Photo: Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials Press Kit, 2012

Tearing Up

weepingmadonnaofsyracuseSometimes I have tried to stop them from flowing. I think this reaction is more about not wanting to make a companion uncomfortable or about feeling judged as being weak. I know I’m not alone. Except for showing grief at a funeral, strong displays of emotions are generally frowned upon. Boys aren’t supposed to cry. And women who cry – they’re labeled as too sensitive.

When tears have formed in my eyes and have rolled down my cheeks, my first reaction is often betrayal. I’ll get upset that my emotions can so easily trump my will when it comes to how I want to show myself to the world. Then there are times when I feel betrayed by an opposite phenomenon, when I want to relieve myself of frustrations or resentments, and I somehow can’t bring myself to cry. I know I’d find some respite in letting things out this way, but sometimes it seems, I’ve already shut the door.

As a feeling and expressive person, I think I’ve taken comfort from Dickens’ words.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.

This past week, I have been grappling with the subject of tears in a different way. The inner debate over whether they should be restrained or encouraged was not my struggle. The hurts tears could potentially have helped heal were not mine.

One good friend invited me to lunch the other day and shared a personal story, now over a month past being news, about being involved in a car accident – as a pedestrian. She had barely talked to anyone but closest family following the incident and has been giving her full attention to physical therapy, sleeping, and respecting her inclination for solitude. She shared that she couldn’t even remember details of the accident other than to say she was glad to be alive and felt grateful that neither the driver of the car that hit her nor a witness who came forward to help the police abandoned her while she waited for the ambulance.

She relayed how just talking about the accident made her cry and she didn’t know why. She didn’t want to cry. She told me she couldn’t remember much and took her inability to recall the details as a signal to back off, as an alarm that she was not ready to unravel some things yet.

I talked to another friend earlier this week that was in the throes of a depression. She confessed that she felt like crying all the time. She had undergone quadruple bypass surgery just weeks ago and still had a lot to process. She’s dealing with physical discomfort, frustration over how her medical team handled her, financial stresses, and not having family around to help her manage daily activities.

Wow, I couldn’t do anything in either case to make my friends feel better except to respect their individual relationship with crying.

I noticed my impulse to want to encourage my friend who was in the car accident to cry and then to follow her tears to the source of what she’s holding in, but I realized she already felt too vulnerable to take this trip. Not now. And I listened to my other friend, in starts and stops, express her fears and worries between sobs.

One wanted to be alone until she regained her strength and confidence. The other friend, I think, was overwhelmed by how alone she felt when being alone was the last thing she wanted. She may have been comforted, to some extent, by me simply witnessing her tears.

My respect for tears has only grown. People may let them flow or may hold them back.  Although tears have been referred to as “God’s way of cleansing the heart,” I can see their power in a more direct way.

Robert Herrick, a 17th century English cleric said, “Tears are the noble language of eyes, and when true love of words is destitute, the eye, by tears, speak while the tongue is mute.”

Tears are a language that can express things words cannot approximate. Letting them flow or not is like making a declaration or deciding to rely on the eloquence of silence. That tears can speak in such a way is no small thing.




Photo:  Our Lady of Syracuse: Source unknown

Hurts So Good

lunge on matSomehow the refrain from John Cougar Mellencamp’s classic rock song kept playing in my mind as I lay fully unfurled on my back recovering from some so-called light stretch.

Hurts so good. Hmmm.

The first week of January saw me shoveling unspeakably high piles of snow from my alley into my backyard before the predicted deep freeze. (Where else could I offload the white stuff if I had any hope of getting my car out of the garage?)

For days, I was feeling pretty good about not being doubled over from the effort.  I thought I must be pretty resilient — until my first yoga class.  A wonderful yoga studio in my neighborhood had an introductory special; unlimited classes for new students for $50 for their first month.

I took regular hatha yoga classes several years ago.  I was never comfortable with routines that turned me upside down or with executing balance poses (please don’t ask me to close my eyes for anything except kissing), but I was pretty comfortable with downward dog, cow and cat stretches and most of the common poses.

Still, some intuitive and protective impulse must have come over me when I selected the best class level for me as GENTLE.

As I was saying, I didn’t think the shoveling had affected me until I really stretched out my arms and legs, my fingers and toes. It seemed every part of my body hurt. Not unbearably, but I was aware of a general discomfort throughout my body.

During my first class, the instructor’s voice was soothing. It faded in and out of my awareness as I closed then opened my eyes. I placed, then removed, blocks and bolsters and blankets to make accommodations for my body’s resistance to different positions.

While trying to visualize my belly button seeking out my spine or imagine that my undisciplined muscles could somehow hug the bones they surrounded with a feeling akin to affection, the instructor would walk by my mat and give me gentle nudges until I achieved the intended alignment.  Once, while my stomach coated the ground and my back was arched and I tried to grab my left ankle with my left hand, she looped the end of a cotton strap around my ankle and placed the ends in my hand so I could feel what the stretch would have felt like IF I was able to grip my ankle with my hand directly (No way).

By the time my first class finished with shavasana (corpse pose), my neck and shoulders and hips hurt. I think I hurt all over. Certainly I was slightly sore in parts of my body that I had forgotten about.

And I was smiling. I was so happy.  I felt so grateful.

Of course, I was proud of myself -– that after recognizing the benefits of yoga, I actually showed up for a class. I actually brought my own mat and made efforts to introduce myself to the instructor and make small talk with other students. I bookmarked the studio’s schedule page on my computer. I was committed to show up again.

But I was happy for every body ache I was aware of. It’s easy for me, under stress, to stop breathing. Sometimes, I don’t allow myself to breathe until I have figured out my next comment or action. But when something in my body hurts, my attention is immediately drawn to the hurt or discomfort. I find myself in the present moment. I find myself slowing down…and I’ll breathe…consciously…and the hurt will go away.

It hurts so good when I realize I need to stretch myself and know I CAN go beyond my past limitations.  Even when my body says, “Whoa, you can’t go there,” I can remind myself that I can go further than I thought. When arranging my limbs or torso in a new way and I feel a little uncomfortable, I can use it as a signal that I have found a limit -– for now.  I can recognize the discomfort as a signal that I have more work to do and that I can work up to a place of increased openness and flexibility where the position can be held without any twinges or tightness.

When you can experience comfort within a hurt and are reminded that you’re stretching your limits of what’s possible, it’s no small thing.

Go Soak in the Tub

bathtub 2A few weeks ago, in anticipation of Thanksgiving and birthday celebrations, and the stresses that accompany an overflowing social schedule, I booked a massage at a local chiropractor’s office. A friend recommended a massage therapist who was not available, and I had to trust the receptionist to recommend an alternative.

“If you like Rebecca,” she gushed.  “You’ll love Michael!”

Except for a few moments at the beginning of our session when I asked Michael to turn off the jungle sounds they had piped into the small rectangular room and find more melodic and quieter background music, I was thrilled with the massage. I was glad I gave myself the gift, and I found Michael to be perfectly sensitive to my cues, adjusting pressure when appropriate and not ruining the vibe by making small talk.

In a super-relaxed stupor, after I dressed and slipped a folded ten-spot into Michael’s hand, I was told to drink a lot of water the rest of the evening and, if possible, to take a warm bath with some Epsom salts. Ever eager to stretch the relaxation I felt to the max, I routed myself home in such a way that I would be sure to pass a couple drug stores so I could hunt up bath salts.

I drank lots of water and refrained from drinking alcohol during dinner.  Whatever relaxation benefit I might get from a glass of Malbec, I figured it would not worth interfering with the stretching and deep tissue un-knotting that I received at Michael’s hands.

After a fun evening with friends and singing songs for Thanksgivinkuh (a new holiday that only occurs once in a hundred years or so), after I got home, I consumed a few more tumblers of filtered water and ran water for my bath. I measured a couple cups of salts and added them to the bathwater after carefully manipulating the faucet until I found the perfect temperature. I engaged the jets and lowered myself in the tub.


Oh, this was good. I mean it. Really good.

Warm vapors hovered over the surface of the water and I alternated between sitting and reclining, turning occasionally so that one of eight pressurized streams of water would hit my right hip and other tired parts of my body.

Why don’t I do this more often?

Ha. While I carved out some tub time on orders from the masseur, the thought came over me that I could really be enjoying the benefits of a good soak all the time. My tub is extra deep. It’s located just off the master bedroom so it’s very private. I can adjust the temperature handily.  It even has whirlpool jets. I never had this luxury before I lived here.

I had gotten into the habit of thinking of taking a hot bath when I have a cold and want to give myself a steam treatment. I will take short showers if I want to get ready for the day quickly; long showers after a work-out.  But rarely have I thought about the pleasure of sitting in the tub as something I could do whenever I want to.

A long hot bath is a convenient way to de-stress. I can take a long hot bath at home. It’s healthy – and it’s free. Now that I have a deep tub that’s equipped with water jets, the experience is especially nice. Besides, I like the privacy of holing up in my bathroom.  I can bring a boom box into the tiled chamber or light candles to make the atmosphere even more relaxing.

Being able to retreat into the center of your home to enjoy the solitude and sensations of a good soak is no small thing.


Learning a New Language

mac air 3“Are you ready to drink the Kool-Aid?” my friend Holly asked while I checked out the red tee shirted regiment of twenty-something sales clerks at the Apple Store in the Old Orchard Mall.  At the time, I didn’t even think about how fitting it was that I would be looking for an Apple in an Old Orchard.

I was a little numb amidst the beehive of activity that swirled around me. It was hard for me to believe that so much business was being conducted in such an open space  — with minimal inventory on display and no cash registers present.

I had been contemplating retiring my Dell desktop for some time and was wondering if the saying had any validity, Once you go Mac, you never go back.  I was weighing my options; trying to balance the extreme loyalty Apple users seem to have for their brand against my own perception of myself as a slow adapter, a slow learner, when it comes to technology.

I am not a Luddite, I would explain to people, but I have never owned a laptop, don’t own a smart phone, and have never had teenage children to consult for tech support.  Still, recent consumer feedback was compelling.  A lot of people may like their HP or Lenovo or Dell PC, but I can’t think of them loving their computers.  Macophiles love their machines.

I won’t deny it.  I wanted to fall in love.

When the Apple Store clerk processed my order, it included a year of unlimited one to one training.  Some of my more computer savvy friends scoffed at the idea of training.  “You don’t need training. Just Google your questions,” they’d say. One friend who had experience with both platforms simply advised, “Just remember that when you press delete, you are backspacing.”

Moving from a PC platform to a Mac platform was – IS – a big deal to me.  I use my computer to do paid research work, to communicate with my peeps and to blog. I use my computer to write all sorts of things.  Learning a new platform is like learning a new language.

This was made very clear to me during my first one to one session.  When I tried to execute a basic task of file management and navigation referring to how I performed the task in a Windows/PC environment, I asked my trainer to confirm how to accomplish this in Mac motions or commands. “So, doing this will take me back to the desktop, right?” I asked.

“First,” my guide said then shook his head, having learned Apple-ese as his original form of communication.  “You have to learn the language.  We  refer to this as Mission Control.”

I was sort of taken aback by the almost pompous sounding term, likening the world of personal computing to space exploration.  And yet learning this new tool for communicating, for organizing my thoughts, almost seemed as ambitious, as unnatual as manned space travel.

So jumping into this new Mac World scares me a little. I know myself to have a low frustration tolerance and while I am equipping myself with a book on switching from a PC to a Mac (by a New York Times technology writer, no less) and I signed up for a year of one to one sessions, when I want to do something on a computer, I just want to do it. I don’t want to figure out how.

No matter what I do, short of having the necessary understandings imported into my brain like I might transfer a contact list, I recognize that the only way I am going to find my way is by finding my way; by experimenting.

And isn’t this the point of trying something new, really new.  My new Air — unlike a car that only feels new while it still has that smell  — this toy, I mean tool, will feel new as long as I am discovering new things.

Re-training your mind to embrace uncertainty and experimentation is no small thing.

Grab Bag

grab bag 1On the Friday before Christmas I get together with several of my girlfriends to toast the holiday and nibble on great cheese spreads and confections without guilt. We’ll listen to old Andy Williams Christmas CDs (Who?), catch up on each other’s lives and giggle until the wee hours of the morning.

Nancy always hosts.  She must have several hundred Santa themed tchotchkes and a bodaciously decked out tree.  We’ve kept up this tradition for close to twenty years.

Many years ago, everyone would exchange gifts with everyone, usually small things like scented candles or bubble bath or other things you can buy for around five dollars. Each holiday guest would buy and wrap six or seven of the same item so that everyone would get the same thing.

A few years back we replaced this custom with a wine exchange.  Each guest spends $15 on a bottle and wraps it in festive paper or places it in a holiday gift bag. Then we draw numbers written on pieces of green Christmas tree shaped construction paper to determine the order for picking the bottle each of us would be going home with.

I love grab bags! It is a great way to handle a gift exchange.

First of all, they are usually set up to have spending limits.  This reduces a lot of stress that can accompany gift buying. Giving becomes less about impressing someone with how much is spent on a gift.

I also like to be surprised.  I like to try new things that I might never think of trying.  A grab bag is a very personal way of giving a gift although the emphasis is on the giver not the receiver.  With any wrapped mystery wine, there’s a chance to find out whether the giver has a favorite bottle or type of grape.  A selection can reveal whether someone relies on the recommendations of a sales clerk or whether she’s drawn to a particular bottle based on the label design.  A selection can also indicate a desire to sample something at a future social gathering.

So this year, I got to choose 3rd among six people.  I collected a California red that I would probably never have picked from a store shelf myself.  It felt like taking a little adventure home with me.

I was happy to see that one of the more sophisticated wine drinkers chose the bottle I brought, a nice cab I actually serve when I have company.  It may have been a safe selection, but I like to think it will be appreciated with the right meal. The person from our holiday circle who probably is the least into wine unwrapped a bottle of a chocolate wine.  I have seen such wines in tasting rooms in Napa, but I wouldn’t think of buying such a bottle for myself.  I know she was glad with her selection.

It’s a strange force that seems to be at play in a grab bag. Everyone seems to get what he or she needs to get. In our wine exchange that could mean a person receives something that suits her taste or maybe something that expands the range of what she’d normally try. Maybe what we all need is simply to get out of a habit and welcome what comes to us in whatever wrapping it comes in.

It’s funny how a $15 limit for gift buying can open up so many different ways to receive the real value of a gift – and that’s no small thing.

What’s that Smell?

frazier firI keep my bedroom door closed at night during the winter. Even with the thermostat turned down to 65°,  the room holds the heat from its one vent very well.

At around 6:30, I’ll head to the kitchen to put the kettle on. My first footsteps into the hall often represent a difficult transition. The hallway floor is cold and my legs don’t seem to want to stay under me. Lying in bed is so much easier. My first cold morning thought is often a wish to slip back into bed and take up a wonderfully trans-rational dream narrative where things left off.

This wasn’t the case yesterday. When I opened my bedroom door, my nose was tickled with an unaccustomed aroma.

What’s that smell? I thought.

It was of course, the smell of pine. I forgot how it would greet me in the morning. I got a Christmas tree, a small Frazier Fir, the day before. It was now clamped upright in its stand, still undecorated, relaxing its branches and simply standing in a corner of my living room.

The smell made me smile, and not in an ironic sort of way although I have often wondered why household cleaners, made from the most unnatural things on earth, often come in pine scented versions. I smiled at the smell in my hallway because it cut through the cool air and made me feel connected to nature.

I know smells are supposed to be evocative. They can trigger memories like nothing else. But outside of my bedroom door, I was not expecting to feel transported to Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies. Years ago, I took a road trip from Calgary through Banff and Lake Louise, up to Kootenai British Columbia and back through Canmore.

So many times during this adventure, I marveled at the great pine trees, miraculously growing straight up towards the sun regardless of how steep the incline.The smell of pine seemed like the essence of what was best in nature.

I smiled, too, I think, for the moment of recognition itself. I knew what I smelled. There may only be a few other scents that are so unmistakable; maybe a lover’s cologne, a stew from a family recipe simmering on the stove, or baby powder (and the fresh skin of the child dusted in it).

My first reaction to the smell of pine in my house was to revel in memories of nature and that road trip, a time when I saw the world with a particularly open-heart. I was grateful that the smell re-connected me with the past. But smell also brings you into the present like nothing else.

If you are traveling anywhere in the world, your lodging may be of a non-descript standard, basically the same in Marrakesh as in Mexico City, but take a deep breath of the air along a winding street in any city’s old quarter, and you will know exactly where you are.

Rudyard Kipling once said, The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it. Maybe that’s true. Smell goes beyond words in defining a place or encapsulating a moment.

And the smell of pine in my home on this cold morning made me grateful for my ability to take in all fragrances.

Any time you breathe deeply and consciously is a great reminder to breathe deeply and consciously all the time.

Taking time to smell the roses — or the pine — is no small thing.

House of Cards

cardsoncredenzaFor the month of December, I live in a house of cards.

I don’t mean that my house is flimsy or lacking a sound structure. It’s just that holiday cards take up premium space on the top of my dining room credenza between late November and January 1st. Overflow cards may be fanned open and displayed on the window sill on the other end of my dining room.

My late November birthday, along with Thanksgiving and, this year, Hanukkah, opens the season of collecting cards. The collection  grows through December when I receive Christmas greetings.

My typical You’ve Got Mail instincts kick in around Thanksgiving. As the days get shorter, as darkness paints my front steps earlier, I notice being more eager to check my mail box. Between, the usual low-interest rate credit card offers and holiday catalogs, I will start seeing larger, more square-shaped envelopes, often in pastels, with trademarked logos on the back announcing the contents came from Hallmark or Shoebox or Papyrus or UNICEF.

I will quickly run my eyes over the face of the envelope and study the return address. I may laugh at how the penmanship says something I’ve already contemplated about the sender’s personality. I will think about the last time I saw or spoke to the sender. I’ll think about what a nice gesture it is – to be remembered this way. Then my ponderous mood will break and I will tear open the envelope.

Some cards are funny. Some cards try to capture qualities that reflect my relationship with the sender. Others are strictly about the occasion. I’ll read the official, printed, greeting slowly and the personal message on the inside even more slowly. I will read a card multiple times before adding it to my collection.

I’ll usually take some time before placing a card on the dark wood surface. I take many things into consideration when arranging them; color, size, shape, who the card is from. I enjoy this process too.  Cards from my bank or from other businesses usually go to the back row. Cards with more personality or cards from people with whom I am closer tend to end up in the front.

I think I enjoy collecting cards holiday time because I like running to the mail box in anticipation of being surprised when I open an envelope.

I like reading the cards, and I like feeling that the senders were deliberate in choosing them.  Think about how often you have stood over the rack at Target or CVS or a specialty card shop pouring over the options for a special friend or a special occasion. I like receiving birthday cards, which are individually selected, more than seasonal cards, which come in boxed sets. I like feeling that I am unique; that of all the choices available a card was picked just for me.

I like arranging the cards and making a display for myself because I can apply my creativity, my own thinking to how I display them.

Mostly, I like to be able to look at my cards periodically during the day and think about how they represent the serendipitous intersection of my history with the histories of different people in my life. Was it chance that I was born into a certain family, was introduced to certain friends through other friends, or developed ties to different professionals who use my birthday or holiday to let me know that I matter to them?

It certainly can feel random sometimes. It can also feel meant to be. Sometimes when I see my house of cards, in all their colors, shapes, sizes and styles, I can absorb a keen truth. My life is largely about the people I share it with, the time I spend with them, what I’ve done with them or what I’ve learned from them, and what I think about them.

Being reminded that I belong to them and they belong to me is no small thing.  (That reminds me, I need to mail Laura’s birthday card before the 20th.)



leftovers3Dispensing some very 60’s era, sorority house suitable advice, my older sister used to tell me, “A girl can never be too rich, too thin, or have too much Tupperware.”

While I might get a good chuckle out of the thought now, that this simple prescriptive could cover the complexities of being a modern woman, I can’t disagree totally about the Tupperware part. Without a suitable assortment of containers, there would be many fewer possibilities for mealtime transformations.

Maybe transformation is too strong a word, and yet I’m not so sure.

I love using fresh ingredients when I cook. I’ll use meats freshly wrapped by a white paper capped butcher. I try to pick out vegetables from what looks to be the best in my grocery’s produce section. I’ll even read expiration labels on dry goods or nuts.

But knowing I have leftovers in my fridge thrills me too. Years ago, taking leftovers home from a restaurant or from a family potluck was referred to as taking home a doggie bag. It was as if people should either share their excess with their furry friends or be ashamed to eat leftovers themselves. I was never sure.

Making use of leftovers is about re-purposing and transformation.

Re-purposing leftovers can be a challenge. How do you take disparate things and put them together in a new way?

For me, re-purposing leftovers has often begun with an ecological intent (not wasting) and has turned into a creative mission. It can be a surprise and a delight to see what I’m able to come up with.

I’ve turned a previous evening’s broiled salmon into a salmon and dill omelet or flaky fish cake.   Remnants of a Thanksgiving feast can present special challenges, but I have come up with surprising mains and side dishes from turkey drumsticks and sweet potatoes.

I love leftovers!

I love it when I can open my refrigerator door and find cold pizza or chunks of pot roast, salad remnants, or turkey slices from the day before and I don’t have to fix anything in order to eat. I like to challenge myself creatively to make something new out of what I have on hand.

But there’s something else that makes leftovers a special delight to me…and a great cause for thanks.

Leftovers remind me I have more than enough – and that’s no small thing.

(The Joy of) Conflict

spartie fanI thought I had prepared well for the game. I was wearing my Cuddle Duds long underwear and my new down coat (with built-in hoodie), my fur lined, knee-high winter boots, two pair of gloves, and a suitable for late January bulky sweater (even though it wasn’t even the end of November). We brought insulated seat cushions so we wouldn’t have to sit on the cold metal benches and we had a polar fleece blanket for our laps. Still, I couldn’t believe how cold I was.

The Saturday college football game between the Northwestern Wildcats and Michigan State Spartans was supposed to be a rite of passage of sorts. Here I was, a big football fan and I had never been to a big program college game.

It wasn’t hard to get tickets either, not hard like it may have been at other schools where the students rally around their team or well-stationed alumni make nostalgic excursions on crisp fall afternoons.

At Ryan Field, the fans from East Lansing probably outnumbered the Wildcat fans three to one. Their familiar mascot proudly wearing above the knee ancient Greek armor, Spartanwear, despite the chilly breeze, charged the field with the school’s giant green and white banner fully unfurled.

And the thought sunk deep into my bones. Not only was I unbearably cold.  I was also conflicted. Who should I root for?

Not that any of the players would care. The other hearty fans that chose to spend their Saturday afternoon sitting on a metal bench drinking nothing stronger than hot chocolate didn’t care either. But it seemed important to me. Should my allegiance go to the Green and White or Purple and White?

I think when I feel conflict, my mind automatically creates a sort of ledger sheet; two side by side columns divided by a vertical line, listing pros and cons of each choice.

Well, I thought, I have friends whose children attended State. I don’t know much about their football program, but I have been following their basketball program for years and always root for them during the NCAA tournament. But the Wildcats are the home team, I reminded myself. Their football program has been working hard to gain respectability. They’re the underdogs.

And I thought about my relationship with conflict. I don’t like it. I’ll usually prefer dealing with something simply difficult over something I feel conflicted about or something that is unclear. Just a few months ago, for several weeks, I couldn’t fall asleep. Even though I didn’t consciously bring my dilemma to bed with me, the unsettled nature of my feelings were never far away.  Once I made a decision, it became easier to slip into sleep at night.

I noticed the entries on my internal balance sheet kept growing (I admired the Spartan fans for supporting their team en masse; as a high school senior, I chose not to go to Northwestern because of a vibe I got; I liked the way Northwestern held their athletes to higher academic standards than most large schools, etc.). I don’t like to be in conflict, but then again, I was beginning to appreciate the gift of having to sort out my feelings.

Resolving a conflict by choosing one of two options where both choices have merit is an incredible process. Sometimes, things come down to trusting a gut feeling over a rationalization or making a choice you believe would make the most sense to others. Sometimes, accepting that you can’t choose one thing over another immediately but trust that you will be able to make a decision at the right time is a great victory. Looking into the nature of a conflict may be the first step towards peace.

Deciding what team to root for or what action to take next, or even trusting a conflict will resolve at the right time, is no small thing.


Sacred Stories

breaking bad sec seaons angleThe other night I was at a friend’s playing a board game. While the monthly get together was attended by regulars, there were quite a few fresh faces, and I tried to make small talk to get to know them better.

Has anyone been watching Breaking Bad? I asked.

Very quickly, a few people bubbled over with comments on how much they liked the cable show, sharing personal tales of Breaking Bad watching marathons while they were sick or weren’t working. (I had to laugh at the current model of television where few people watch their favorite shows when they are aired but rather schedule viewings to fit in with their calendars.)

I only started subscribing to cable a couple years ago, well after 2008 when Breaking Bad was introduced, and only very recently was introduced to the perks of Netflix streaming. Like a teenager gifted with his first smart phone, I get almost giddy with the thought of returning again and again to characters I’ve been getting to know and plot twists I could not have imagined.

I have to wonder what’s so special about this experience of becoming a fan of a particular show.  In general,  I don’t care for TV very much. I have to come back to the idea of story and shared experience.

It’s funny how a TV drama series can make me want to spend hours on my couch obsessed with the complications or unraveling of someone’s life; fictional characters at that. Why should I care?

Certainly the serial format has something to do with this. I love the way each episode has a focus and a dramatic arc, yet always provides some tension to fuel my anticipation for what’s coming next.

I can appreciate the production values of serial television. They use amazing actors and have incredible scripts.  Creators, consultants and producers go to great lengths to give a series an authentic feel through costuming, location-shooting, fact-checking.  The tricks of chemistry or details of anatomy or use of legalese in other TV dramas satisfy my desire to know someone else’s experience.  These shows feel very real to me even though the real world they portray is not one I know.

I love how these TV dramas have spawned discussion and connections between seemingly unrelated people; how grandmothers from New Jersey and California Valley Girls can talk about Downton Abbey, how a retired barber and a grunged out gamer could carry on an animated dialogue on what character from The Sopranos is most likely to get whacked before the end of a season.

Yet, I think my attraction to Breaking Bad or Mad Men, or The Wire is the magic of story itself.  It seems that each generation has stories that speak to them or capture their imagination. In other countries, other eras, maybe people gathered around a campfire to tell or act out or dance a story, and today we stream productions of stories to fit our individual schedules.  There is a personal aspect and a communal aspect to each story.  A good story almost always makes us think about ourselves. Our personal experience of a story almost always begs to be shared with others.

Stories start with characters that are heroic and flawed – like we all are. They deal with questions of good and bad, hope and hopelessness, conflict and peace. Stories make impressions on us over time.  We can be changed by stories. We may also perceive a story differently at different times in our lives.

In life, it seems, we experience a natural tension between continuation and resolution. We want our stories to have happy endings. We also don’t want a good story to end.  This seems to require some level of conflict.

I couldn’t have predicted being concerned with the evolution of Breaking Bad’s lead character, Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a meth manufacturer and drug kingpin after a cancer diagnosis, but I have become enthralled. I spoke with my friend in California recently, also a big fan.  She  explained that Walter actually BECOMES cancer as he starts ruining the lives of people around him.  What a concept!

Any time you can see the universal in something particular, it’s no small thing.


In and Out

winterclosetJust the other week, I was preoccupied with one of the traditions of the season – setting clocks back one hour to reflect the end of Daylight Savings Time. The actual ritual takes less time than the amount of time I ruminate on what I want to do with my extra hour.

I can’t say this about another important fall tradition – transferring my warm weather and cold weather wardrobes between my bedroom closet and more distant storage space. This upstairs – downstairs, front closet – back closet process always takes some time and not an insignificant amount of reflection.

Unlike changing the clocks, which is a practice observed by everyone the same way, this in with my sweaters/out with my sundresses ritual is triggered by feel. When exactly I’ll decide to take this task on will depend on the weather, how much free time I have; my mood. It’s a much more personal tradition. I have to be ready to shake things up, to make decisions and, sometimes, to be willing to part with things.

I’ll usually decide to change the landscape of my closets in November only after I am convinced I won’t want to wear shorts and tees any time soon. This ritual is summoned by a kind of a wistful realization that summer is truly and completely over.

Sometimes, I’ll find myself spreading all my clothes on my bed on a gray and drizzly Sunday when the illusion of sunshine can’t play with my normally sensible fashion choices and I’ve accepted the jig is up. Sometimes I’ll decide to manage my closet cleaning/wardrobe swapping process on a Friday night when I have nothing else to do. The amount of time I’ll take can make it feel like a Friday night indulgence, like something I do for ME. I suppose it is.

Just the other day, I was looking for a blouse I usually think of as transitional, not purely fitting for any one season, and I couldn’t remember if I hung it in my upstairs or downstairs closet.  Of course, this prompted me to look through my closets and opened the dam for the flood of garments I started stacking on my bed. At this point, I was taken by an irrepressible urge to know what I possessed.

Out came my summer wear. Dresses and sheer tops, mostly on white plastic hangers, found their way to the top of my bed. I emptied all my closet bins of tees, except for gym clothes, refolding most of them for compact storage in the chest of drawers in the basement or seldom used guest room closet.

I brought up sweaters and long sleeved tops from these same remote spaces. I did a little mental inventory to account for my few cashmere sweaters I expected were contained in dry cleaning bags and chastised myself when I discovered any cold-weather garment that got stored before it was cleaned properly.

For a short period, both summer and winter clothes were displayed on my bed; almost everything I own that’s wearable. I have an odd appreciation for this moment of reckoning. It’s a great exercise in being conscious.

I enjoy this twice a year process of swapping out my clothes between closets. I like feeling current and having what I need close at hand. I like being able to look at what I have and ask myself if I need or want something moving forward. (I’ll usually end up sending a bag of clothes to The Village or Goodwill.) I may notice gaps in what I think I need and budget to buy something, or I’ll notice if a jacket needs a new zipper or if a button needs to be secured before I really want to wear it.

Mostly, this ritual is one of awareness and gratitude. It validates my efforts to give myself what I need but not carry extra stuff through my next season.

Seeing that what you have is enough is no small thing.

The Mystery of the Extra Hour

timechangeFall back. Spring forward. The expression comes to me each October (now November) and each April, automatically, like the quietly insistent voice I hear in my head when I am about to go out to the theatre and I question my readiness. Got the tickets?

The practice of changing our clocks in the fall and spring has been around officially for about a hundred years although, supposedly, ancient civilizations observed seasonal adjustments in their daily schedules too.

I have come to expect some confusion and a period of adjustment around this bi-annual ritual. I have gone out to meet people an hour earlier than scheduled after the fall time change and have been late to some occasions on certain Sundays in April. Sometimes, I’ll start switching the time on clocks in anticipation of the change only to notice that the timepieces I rely on (in my house or on my car dash), all seem set for different times, and I don’t know which to believe.

And, of course, I will not feel like going to bed at the optimal time for three days after we go back on Standard Time and will feel tired early for two to three days after we go on Daylight Savings Time.

I like the idea of having long, long days in the summer, but I don’t like the idea of losing an hour each April, which is the most immediate consequence of the time change. I realize, of course, that days are not longer or shorter at different times of the year (there’s always 24 hours to a day), but I am susceptible to the illusion.

I always like the fall time change better than the one in April even though the occasion means that I will be driving home from work or early evening errands after sunset.  I like the idea of getting an extra hour.

And when does this mysterious extra hour get folded into the batter of our daily lives? Two o’clock on Sunday morning is when we are supposed to turn our clocks back to 1:00. Really!  Really?

This only adds to the mystery.  I am not usually awake to witness this magical moment. I will just go to sleep on Saturday night, and I have to trust that everyone else moved their clocks back too.

Perhaps I will have nothing special planned for this extra hour, but I consider it a gift nonetheless.

And I guess that’s a little bit of a mystery too; why this extra hour makes me so happy. Sixty minutes is not a very long time, but it seems like a long time. It’s free, uncommitted.  It’s a gift requiring no special arrangements or negotiations. It only happens once a year. It comes to you automatically, without special merit. No strings attached.

When you think about it, any gift of time is no small thing.

Aging Gracefully

carmella with plantJohn was concerned about me being thrown into such a family gathering; a 90th birthday party, in Lake County, Indiana, among cousins from his dad’s side, some of whom he had not seen in twenty years.  He assured me that there would be plenty of food and probably lots of kids running around but was worried if I would feel engaged. After all, we planned to be at cousin Pauly’s the better part of the day.

“They speak English, don’t they?” I asked rhetorically. “Don’t worry. I’ll do fine.”

During the hour plus drive out to Dyer, I tried to get my family connections straight. I drilled John about who was married to whom, what were the names of their kids, who still lived in the area, etc. Besides combating disappointment over some gaps in what he was able to recall, he was concerned that we should arrive before the surprise.

Cousin Roseanne met us at the front lawn, after we parked. She was very excited to see John, who, I think she last saw eight years ago. She pointed out where we could find refreshments and quickly introduced us to members of the clan. The crowd, who gathered from as far away as LA and South Carolina, had already seemed to make themselves at home. Not before long, we were ushered into the dining room behind the front hallway so we could get in place for the surprise.

Cousin Dino was sent to pick up Aunt Carmella, the new nonagenarian, from her home in East Chicago, a home that had been in her family since she was five.  She was told she was coming to a birthday celebration for a grand-nephew whose special day was later in the month, so she would not be surprised to see extra cars on the driveway.

Shh. Shh. The call echoed in the hallway as Aunt Carm and Dino made their way up the walk.

When we all yelled surprise, we saw Carmella pat her right hand against her heart a few times, genuinely surprised and touched by the sight. As everyone stepped back into the conversations they were having before the big moment, she asked where Kevin could be found so she could give him his birthday card.

During the afternoon, Carmella made sure to spend one-on-one time with everyone. Her gray hair was pinned behind her head in a clean but not austere way that had probably not changed for the past fifty years. When she found me scanning the bulletin board collage that was displayed near the front door, she smiled at the recollections the images triggered and began telling me the stories behind the shots.

“I remember that jacket,” she confided.  “I bought it at Peck and Peck. I told the saleslady to put it on hold and that I would pick it up the next day. See the fur collar?  It goes with this skirt.  See?  I’m wearing the skirt in this photo over here…”

Her memory was amazing. Her affection for the people she shared life’s milestones with obvious.

She read every word on every card and remarked on each one as she opened gifts. She made everyone feel appreciated for their thoughtfulness.

And when we gathered around the special butter cream cake (half marble, half banana) and sang our tribute to her ninety years, her eyes shone with gratitude. Only moments later, as if asking for a great indulgence, she begged, “Wait a minute,” then she went looking for Kevin, the other birthday honoree.  She draped one arm around his shoulder (she still had 6” on him, although we could guess not for long), and she asked us to sing Happy Birthday again — to both of them.

And I couldn’t help but think of my friends, may of whom have fine-tuned their regimens of anti-aging creams or yoga routines and me, along with Suzanne Summers, one of the biggest fans of natural hormone replacement therapy I can think of, and I recognized it was us who had things wrong.

Aging gracefully is not about escaping signs of aging. It’s about welcoming each new year, each month, and each day with grace. With generosity. With respect and affection.

Sharing your Happy Birthday cake and song of celebration is no small thing.


Girl in carOkay, I was in a hurry. I was going to a girls’ night out networking gathering and I had to stop at a Cash Station first.

I found myself slipping into one of those stretches of time when everything seems to slo-o-ow down, when the smallest of movements seem very big, when you can hear the dialog in your head in precise syllables. I noticed myself zoning out and couldn’t tell if a few seconds or a few minutes had passed.

I was forced to get still. I was stopped at a traffic light.

As I looked around the intersection, my eyes rested on an electronic sign for the neighborhood bank. It alternated between announcing the temperature and the time (which, according to my dashboard clock, was two minutes fast). I noticed what the gas prices at the Shell Station, on the opposite corner, were. (Not bad, I remember thinking. Or, were they for the price per gallon WITH a car wash?)

There was a bench near the bus stop just a few feet ahead of my car and a little independent computer repair shop across the street. (Funny, I thought, I don’t recall having seen it before.)

Then I looked at the car next to me. It was a sensible car, an environmentally friendly car; a late model Toyota Prius or something like that. A young father was driving and his two daughters (I assume) were sitting in the back seat. The younger one, who I guessed to be about five, was trying to get her older sister’s attention. She was failing miserably. The older girl, who was probably around ten, was doing what I was doing – scanning the intersection for anything interesting to focus on.  Of course, she probably was not upset that she was performing such a detailed scoping exercise because she was stopped at a traffic light. Looking at things just happened to be what she did.

And I somehow got the feeling that she could tell; that she could tell I was amused by her father’s mixed success concentrating and about how she was ignoring her younger sister. She knew that I wasn’t too pleased about getting stopped at the red light and how I was trying to make the best of things by critiquing what I observed in my surroundings, like how none of the nearby electronic clocks matched or how the well-accessorized cyclist, with his tripped out two-wheeler, was standing at the bus stop. (If he was so keen on cycling, why didn’t he simply ride his bike to his destination?)  She also knew I was looking at her. She knew, in looking past two pairs of car windows, that I was a little like her.

And when the light changed and her father revved up his Prius (if you could call it revving up), and we both pulled away, she looked directly at me and waved.

I melted.

Images of some of the great waves in history played in my mind like clips from old news reels.  I imagined Queen Elizabeth, with Kate and Lady Di in tow, showing me the backs of their hands from a regal balcony or carriage. I thought about Pope Paul (and John Paul, Benedict and Francis, with corresponding numerals), waving from Pope-mo-biles, to adoring crowds along streets in urban slums and grand plazas. I imagined Bill Clinton making his patented thumbs up gesture after a stump speech, a form of wave that signaled both intimacy and political calculation.

And here I was, with my car window down and my wandering mind corralled into stillness because of a traffic light and the gaze of a ten year-old…and the sight of her right palm rocking gently from side to side. In her small gesture, I knew she saw me. Saw ME.

And being seen is no small thing.


wooden floor1The other day, I washed my wooden floors. I probably do this twice a month. The oak floors where I live are original to the building. They have a wonderful honey color and they make my place feel light and open.

I love my floor; with all its knots and changes in grain and imperfections. Oddly enough, I probably appreciate it the most when I am cleaning it. And I seem to have am almost automatic routine for this.

First, I will sweep my floors; front of the house to back, living room to dining room and kitchen. The job becomes more complex as I work my way towards the back door. I’ll drag my one high-backed chair and magazine rack onto my living room’s area rug until my broom has pushed dust I discovered under the sofa onto a waiting dust pan. I will place my office waste basket on the desk and shoes from my bedroom closet floor on window sills until I have swept those rooms. Then I’ll sweep the hallway.

I will mix up a bucket of Murphy’s Soap with warm water then, using my mop tagged with a W for wood floors, I’ll mop the front of the house and hallway. Once dry, I’ll return my big chair and magazine rack to their regular spots and line up my counter stools, from the dining room, into the hallway. I will move my dining room chairs around the dining room as I’ll sweep and mop the room, one section at a time.

Where does so much dirt come from?  I will marvel at how full my dust pan gets before emptying it and shake my head at how my bucket of water has turned from clear to smoky to gray as I mop from front to back of the house.

When I first moved in, after the building had been rehabbed, it seemed the place was full of construction dust. I washed the floor on my hands and knees, probably nine times, rubbing a soft cloth over the surface, until I was able to walk around barefoot without feeling grit on my soles.

When I lived in my first apartment, I remember washing the kitchen floor on my hands and knees.  I’d look at my reflection in a bucket of water and notice how the circular fluorescent on the kitchen ceiling would appear like a halo behind my head. I was so proud of cleaning MY floor. Few things, it seems, gave me as much pride of ownership as washing my floor.

I had to think about this.

There are so many associations I have, that WE have as a culture, with cleaning the floor. It’s a common ritual at the end of a workday.  Factories, industrial kitchens, the aisles of movie theaters and grocery stores are all swept before shift changes. Sailors are ordered to swab the deck as part of their duties. Sweeping the floor indicates that what has taken place in an area has been completed.  Something is now DONE.

We have associations likening sweeping to some form of dominance. Baseball teams sweep a series when they beat their opponent in consecutive games. Political parties sweep elections when their numbers constitute a voting bloc.

I can remember watching old movies and cartoons as a child where the woman of the house or cottage obviously spent a good part of her day sweeping dust and dirt over the threshold of her front door, back outside. It seemed like a never ending task, keeping the outside OUTSIDE and somehow maintaining the sanctity of the home.

I realized that, as an adult, I may have taken this idea even further. I will usually take off my shoes and often ask that guests take off their shoes when stepping inside. It’s not exactly as if I think of my home as my temple, but I do like to feel that there’s a real separation between my outer life and my inner life. If I’m outside, I feel like I have to be a little on guard. I will feel that I need to protect myself. When I am inside, in my home, I like to drop my guard.

Cleaning my floor gives me a sense of pride in my home. It’s a gesture of claiming the ground that I walk on as I carry out daily activities. But more than that, being able to walk barefoot in my house gives me the feeling that I am in a protected space.

Having a well-swept and clean floor makes me feel that my footsteps are safe – and that’s no small thing.



Close Call

bird poop 1I was sitting at a picnic table in Ravenswood Manor Park, writing in my journal. I was concentrating very hard, yet I felt my wrist glide left to right easily as the words flowed from my pen.

Then – splat!

Plummeting down maybe five inches from my head, I saw bird droppings plop down then spread out across a two inch area of the table surface like a two dimensional version of a mushroom shaped cloud.

What the –

I examined the spot, the whitish splatter on the grayish brown table surface. I looked around to see if anyone was watching me, or to see if anyone had been hit. All I could think was, That was a close call!

I don’t want to get overly dramatic, but when I thought about the possibility of conditioning my hair with bird pooh, I was very relieved I missed the experience.

I often contemplate my good fortune at small events that work out well for me like catching a bus that only comes every twenty minutes or winning a free concert ticket by calling in to a radio station quiz, or finding out that my reserved theater seat is behind a very short person.

I don’t always think about close calls as good fortune, times when I narrowly miss a problematic situation. But these close calls are blessings.

  • Like when you get back to your car after an errand and are not greeted by a ticket on your windshield even though your paid time expired 11 minutes ago;
  • Or when you’re in the middle of baking something and think you’re missing an essential ingredient only to scan your memory and realize you have a spare box (of cocoa or walnuts or whatever) in your pantry;
  • Or when your piece of toast seems to fly off your plate and land on your linoleum, buttered side up;
  • Or when you break a glass and, uncharacteristically, actually have shoes on;
  • Or when you find your bike standing upright in a public rack after you realize you didn’t slip the chain through the spokes properly;
  • Or when you drink milk after the expiration date and don’t spend the night hugging the porcelain god;
  • Or when you read the small print on an airline ticket because you have to re-arrange your itinerary and realize you actually can exchange the ticket without a heinous penalty;
  • Or when you close the back door of your home, returning after a day out, seconds before it starts to rain.

You may laugh that your good fortune is a sign of living well or of good karma. Inwardly, you still think, Whew. Close call. Boy, am I lucky! 

I have tried not to base feelings of gratitude on comparisons, on thinking myself fortunate compared to a child laborer in Sri Lanka and things like that. I would rather cultivate gratitude without getting tangled in relativity.

But I have to admit that feeling fortunate can often come in the form of contemplating averting a minor disaster.

Keeping your head out of the way of a bird bomb is no small thing.

Meeting Halfway

landmarkfront viewI have a friend who lives about forty miles away.  I suspect her place is as close to the Wisconsin border as it is to Chicago’s Gold Coast.  I’ve lobbied for her to move closer in to the city, but moving any time soon is not on her radar.

I’ll check in with her by phone from time to time and try to see when her interior design business might give her a reason to go to the (Merchandise) Mart. Then I will try to piggyback a date for lunch or drinks on to her in town schedule.

She’s been doing extra family duty lately, driving two hours one-way twice a week to visit her elderly parents and help them manage their household. Since I’ve been very conscious of the road miles she’s been driving lately and thought we could both use some social time, I decided I would try to come up with a place that would be halfway between Chicago and Libertyville so we could meet for a light supper and a cocktail.

We’ve met at malls and movie theaters in between our homes before, and we’ve met in tony Highland Park for duck tacos once, but I wanted to come up with a place that was not part of a characterless suburban shopping center or an expensive winery where first wives’ clubs meet.

I Googled a map that showed the towns dotted along I-94 and made a couple suggestions. We had been to one before so we focused on the spot we were not familiar with.  We looked at their menu and saw that their prices were reasonable. “Do they have outdoor seating?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s try it.”

The Landmark, it turned out, was located on a main street in an old part of a town that has many subdivisions. It’s within a train whistle’s bellow of the commuter station. As it was after 6:00, free street parking was easy to find. I remembered liking the look of the building as soon as I spotted the sign. It had a wooden façade and side deck and an odd sort of balcony that had no obvious way to access. Even at first glance, it spoke of its past lives as Otto Funke’s Saloon and the Cypress Inn, the monikers it operated under before it became The Landmark. The building had been around, in some form, since 1885.

As I was about to walk in, my friend called me on my cell. “I just got here,” she announced. “Meet me on the deck,” she instructed.

I caught up with her at the back end of the deck. We were both smiling. The place was, indeed, pretty much halfway between our homes. Parking was easy and menu prices would not be sending us to the nearest Cash Station. There were TVs outside, I assumed ready to glow with images of nighttime baseball. There was an old bar inside, maybe mahogany, running almost the entire length of the place. It had probably seen a lot of beer spilled in its time.

Nina looked happy. She was in casual attire, wearing different patterned layers on top, well-fitting jeans and sporting some chunky jewelry. (An occupational hazard of a designer, I don’t think she can leave her house without looking very put together.) Our waitress introduced herself quickly after we sat ourselves. The Landmark had a nice vibe.

It was good for both of us, I think, to try something new. When I’m trying something new, everything is a little bit of a surprise, so I have to look at things fresh. There are so many aspects of the experience that I can opinionate on, and I like to form preferences and exercise choices. And, when all is said and done, a new place is all about the vibe and trusting your intuition, and it always seems good to have that reinforced.

I thought about the idea of meeting someone halfway. Of course, this is about more than distance or geography. Meeting someone halfway is always a new experience, unchartered territory. It also requires forming opinions on what would work for you and the other person. It requires being clear about what’s on your mind and thinking about what might be agreeable to everyone concerned. It’s also about intuition and trusting the vibe. You have to stay connected with the scope of your relationship and your intention for the situation.

Meeting someone halfway might take you to a tavern by a train station, or to a new agreement or understanding. Thinking of halfway as a good meeting place is no small thing.

Say YES to the Dress

liz dressv2My family is fairly small.

I’ve never had children of my own, but I have two nieces and have always seen their growth as a happy barometer of time passing. Watching the next generation blossom and branch out, I think, is a special joy (and privilege) as one ages.

My nieces lost their mother twelve years ago. Emma was four and a half. Liz was around sixteen. My sister Barb, over seven years older than me, became their go-to person as they grew up; attending their recitals and concerts, helping them shop for clothes, and, I suspect, even giving them advice about health and body issues.

Sometimes, I wish I could have been more of a support to them during these years, but I know my life was less stable than my sister’s and understand why things played out the way they did. While not on their top five text lists, I know they think of me fondly.

I have been missing Liz lately. I am very proud of her in ways I probably haven’t shared with her. She didn’t exactly raise herself, but she did so many things on her own so that she could be fully launched into the adult world.

She went away to college, not cross-state like I did, but on the east coast, meaning home retreats occurred very seldom. She found a job after graduating in a very difficult market, adopted a shelter dog and took on the responsibilities of her care, went to grad school, managed a dating life (which included a few difficult personalities), and moved…and moved…and moved.

After going to George Washington University, she came back to the Chicago area until she moved to Tennessee for grad school. She just recently moved to South Carolina when her boyfriend (now her fiancé) got a new job.

This is an incredible sign of maturity to me, especially considering she is somewhat of a homebody. She has moved because changing goals or circumstances meant she needed to make her home in different places. It meant she had to create a sense of home wherever she landed.

Just a few weeks ago, she sent my sister Barb a picture-gram, an emailed photo of her left hand sporting an engagement ring. It was not unexpected, yet the timing was a bit of a surprise. That was, it turned out, just the first surprise. Neither Barb nor I thought she would be coordinating a wedding production any time soon (after all, she just moved), but only a few weeks after receiving the picture-gram of the ring, an early spring event in picturesque Asheville, North Carolina claimed a date in Barb’s and my calendars.

She flew to Chicago on a recent weekend to go dress shopping with my sister Barb, one of her besties, Katie, and Lynne, one of Liz’s mother’s besties (who also happens to be Katie’s mother). Liz and I exchanged the following texts referring to the over-the-top cable show featuring fitting room scenes of brides to be and their entourages.

Me: Thank God you have seen a few episodes of Say YES to the Dress so you know how things are supposed to go down. Have a great shopping excursion.  Liz:  Haha. I know!  I am not into this whole dress thing but hopefully I will find something tolerable. LOL.

After a few mimosas to cut the stress, it seemed she found more than a tolerable dress. She found a frock that made her feel pretty and feminine and, for lack of a better word, bride-like. One of her fitting room accomplices emailed me a behind-the-scenes snap that sort of says it all. I think it will be an image I will cherish more than the official event photography.

I wasn’t there, but I sort of felt like I was. Thanks to a cell phone camera, I got to share a special moment with my niece who I don’t get to see near often enough.

Seeing Liz say YES to the dress with her eyes is no small thing.

Eat Your Vegetables

colorful vegetables1I think most of us remember dinner table instructions like “Eat your vegetables,” or “Eat your vegetables or you won’t get dessert.”

I was raised in an era when moms were overjoyed by the convenience of canned veggies and frozen veggies. My own mother was partial to Birds-Eye brand blends of uniformly cut zucchini, broccoli and cauliflower. And who could forget servings of proportionately sized frozen peas and carrot bits left on plates after mains and mashed potatoes had been devoured? Since carrots were always served with peas, I think it wasn’t until well into my teenage years that I realized they didn’t come from the same pod or even the same plant.

My mother was big on V-8 Juice because it supposedly gave you the nutrition that could be found in 8 different vegetables without actually having to consume eight different vegetables (all in one color, too).

I am not sure when I saw the light. I am not vegan or anything. I love a rare hamburger off the grill, but my approach to veggie consumption is opposite the less is more approach. Except for Brussels sprouts (which I just don’t like), more is MORE.

During winter months, I will make a Turkish lamb stew, transforming some inexpensive shoulder meat by letting cubed pieces sweat for hours in a crock pot with green beans, eggplant, and onion. (Don’t forget the bay leaf.) I’ll linger in the produce section at my local store for eternities wavering between choices in greens: mustard, Swiss chard, spinach, and rapini. Don’t even get me started about beets. I can spend hours online pouring over Food Network recipes for that fantastic root.

When I make a salad, I like to throw in red peppers and green onions, purple cabbage shreds, green broccoli flowers and celery, cool white cucumber slices, orange chunks of carrots (now that I know they aren’t naturally the size of peas), maybe some yellow squash, and of course, tomato.  Let’s see. There’s cherry, grape, plum, heritage, black, golden, green, and more.

A few weeks ago, my upstairs neighbor who sings in a band invited John and me to a performance taking place among the small urban garden plots at the Peterson Garden Project just a few blocks from where we live. The New Switcheroo played on a small stage amid an August growth of corn and squash and lettuce. It was a perfect setting for their rendition of Guy Clark’s classic.


Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes —
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can’t buy;
That’s true love & homegrown tomatoes.


The evening of music amid the well-tended garden plots was a special delight. I kept thinking about eating wonderfully colored food from my plate.

Too often, we’re told that things that are good for us are difficult to take; that if we want to benefit from something, we just have to suck it up and tolerate some unpleasantness.

But I can’t say this about eating veggies.

Sometimes, I just want to thank God that something so good for me is so colorful and fun.

Discovering that our parents were right, although not exactly in the way they might have expected, is no small thing. (They’re colorful and fun. Eat your vegetables!)

More Than a Suit

suit and tie 2

Earlier this week, I had a scheduled appointment with my financial adviser. After inheriting a little family money a few years ago (and not expecting much support in the way of social security), I felt charged with the mission to take care of my little nest egg.

Over the past several months, I watched my investment portfolio ride the roller coaster,  streaking to unexpected peaks and, a couple times, dipping below the amount of my initial investment. When I opened my brokerage account with a branch of my bank, I knew there would be some ups and downs. Still, it became hard to see such frequent fluctuations online every time  I monitored my checking account.

Ken, my investment adviser, and Travis, my banking contact, greeted me with good humor. I teased Ken about his choice of shirts and ties as being a way to rock out of the banker’s suit, generally conservative, uniform of his job. They offered me a bottle of water, which of course was re-labeled with the name of their firm. (Never lose an opportunity to send the got your needs covered message, right?) It was kind of funny.

I came prepared with questions. They smiled. They were good questions, they told me. I wanted to know what the portfolio managers were doing to mitigate market volatility. I wanted to know how they planned to get my investments back on track to reach yearly growth goals I had set.

Ken smiled as he took out colorful graphs and grid-filled charts. He talked about market performance over time and the different indexes that could be indicators for different asset classes. Somewhat to my surprise, he even answered my questions.

I wasn’t planning to make any radical changes, but the experience of trying to plan for my financial future was new to me, and I wanted to be a participant, not a spectator, in decisions. At least, I wanted to understand the roller coaster a little better.

As I finished my bank-labeled bottled water and got up to shake their hands, Ken asked if I had plans for the weekend; a personal but not unexpected gesture. After I shared a few probabilities for weekend socializing, Ken offered that he was going to be getting married on Saturday. He added that the wedding was going to take place in Colorado where his fiancé is from. He went on to explain that he was in a car accident recently and was relieved that he didn’t scratch his face or in any way blemish himself for keepsake photos, let alone rupture a kidney.

He got sort of sentimental and philosophical, saying something about the joys and challenges of living with someone. I can’t remember his exact words, but I definitely caught the sentiment.

When you live with someone you love, he explained without the aid of a Power Point graphic,  the little annoyances don’t really matter, like how a partner might not close the faucet all the way or how he or she might not always put their dirty clothes in the hamper. What IS important is how much pleasure you get from their company and how much your partner spurs you into growing. I think he was looking forward to his marriage as a great adventure.

And I thought about other instances in my life when people who I thought of mostly in the context of a socially defined relationship seemed to shed their roles and stand out as the  individuals they were; as people with wicked senses of humor, secret abilities, eccentric charms, big dreams, or deeply rooted vulnerabilities.

When being real and intimate with someone has come as a surprise to me, like it did at my bank, I always feel grateful. At these moments, I can see that there are no real boundaries between me and others. My financial advertiser, or doctor, or shoe salesmen, or tollbooth attendant – we all want to feel free and safe and loved. We’re all human.

Seeing someone as more than a suit is no small thing.


city lights book storeTowards the end of our week visiting friends and family in the Bay area, I had a free afternoon which I decided to spend near the Embarcadero and North Beach.

I took BART to the closest stop to the Ferry Building and planned to walk to the Exploritorium, the new waterfront science museum, and make use of a free pass that was gifted to me.

Boy did I feel like a tourist!

In this case, I don’t mean tourist in the best sense, as in a visitor seeking local sights with a fresh perspective. I mean tourist, as in a marked consumer target fielding non-stop invitations to indulge in over-priced cuisine and kitsch. Besides being a transit point for 11,000 commuters each day, the restored Ferry Building boasts over 65,000 square feet of restaurants and retail space.

Not interested in breaking my diet at either the Cowgirl Creamery or Mariposa Baking Company, I worked my way around the Hyatt and Embarcadero I, II, III and IV retail/office complexes and headed to North Beach.

Just blocks from the waterfront, the terrain started to get steep. As if perusing a stack of picture postcards at a drugstore display carousel, I quickly took in scenes that, while not beautiful Golden Gate Bridge at sunset shots, were still perfect images for the city on the Bay.

Along Broadway, I saw seedy sex shops and small hotels whose walls seemed like they should have fallen in to each other during the last earthquake. Near the gate to Chinatown, I saw an odd assemblage of elderly Han musicians trying to entice visitors to throw a few dollars their way. They played strange looking instruments under a red banner proclaiming ABCT: A Better Chinatown Tomorrow.

Then I turned down Columbus, veering away from the distorted pyramid shadow of the iconic Transamerica building so that I could find an Italian coffee shop and deli and treat myself to lunch. There were more than a few to choose from.

Even though it was sunny, I decided it was too cool to sit street side for hours, so I found a cozy café table inside by the window.  I wrote for hours, filling up pages of my journal while picking at a delicious prosciutto panini.

Then the notion filled my head that I had to go to City Lights, the penultimate independent bookstore.  Maybe I was feeling writerly.

Ah, City Lights. Once I slipped in off the street, I shimmied my way around crowded shelves, noting hand-written cards that announced staff recommendations and new releases published under their imprint. An arrow punctuated placard proclaimed “More on the second floor.”

I marveled at the range of titles and the vibe. Here, I could thumb through volumes featuring some of the newest of the new literary voices from around the world while feeling like I had walked back in time.

And I thought about Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and the ruckus they caused after they opened the store in the fifties. City Lights was always revolutionary and somehow always had a very organic, go with the flow relationship with time. As other building tenants went out of business, they took over vacated spaces, one room at a time, in the barely post earthquake (1906) Artigues Building. In their fifty plus years in operation, they survived multitudes of financial challenges because people who loved the idea of the place stepped up to take on management roles and clerks worked for almost no pay.

At this point, I contemplated that I had been a tourist, an adventurer, and a pilgrim all within a few hours. As a tourist, I waded through a sea of earthly delights that someone who journeyed my route before me decided I might enjoy. As an adventurer, I followed in the moment impulses to wander a particular way down Columbus then choose a menu and a spot where I thought I could hang and write for hours.

Deciding to go to City Lights – now that was a pilgrimage. Going there was about more than checking off a suggestion on Trip Adviser. Standing besides its low-tech cash register, spotting 2013 versions of WPA style socially progressive posters in odd alcoves and hallways, seeing titles I’ve probably never seen on the bargain table at Barnes and Noble — all this meant a lot to me. Just standing there, I could only think about love for reading and courage in writing.

Sometimes, it’s the journey, not the destination. And sometimes it IS the destination.

Making a pilgrimage to a place where your heart feels at home is no small thing.

Starry, Starry Night

sleeping under the starsWhen I met Rocco during his Chicago visit last fall, he was wearing an old orange and black Giants baseball cap and was waiting for me to pick him up by the post office on Southport. He had just watched my beloved Cubbies lose yet another game at Wrigley.

I met him only once before, for five minutes, at my friend Lin’s in Sonoma.  He was her landscaper and she called me a week earlier and mentioned he was coming through Chicago and asked if it would be okay if he contacted me.

Of course, I volunteered to be his local contact. I thought I would be called on to explain the Chicago Transit Authority’s color coded subway routes. I didn’t expect we’d be hanging out the greater part of the next week. But Rocco is pretty remarkable, totally infused with that kind of joie de vivre that you naturally want to be around. Rocco is a man comfortable in his own skin.

During his visit, he slept in budget accommodations near Greektown, but hung out with John and me and my friends much of the week. Together, we caught some Siberian rockabilly, Columbian  porro, and Malian toureg during the World Music Festival and dined together several times. John and I sat in rapt attention as he shared tales of his last adventure; who he talked with on the el or what kind of noodle shop he discovered that was not in Lonely Planet or any other tourist guidebook.

His visit was followed by a thank you card and an invitation to enjoy his hospitality next time we visited the left coast. So when we planned our trip to Alameda to visit John’s mom, we also designated a day to go to Sebastopol to see John’s friend Phil, a helluva mandolin player, my bestie Lin, and our new friend Rocco.

His place totally fit his personality and reflected how he approached his life as a traveler, cherishing experiences above ownership. Rocco and his partner Beverly, a talented potter, lived in a simple home on a several acre spread, which they rented.  As part of the deal they had with the landlord, they tended to a couple cows and chickens.

Stone paths and a fountain were set along the side of the house creating a garden that was intentional but not fussy. I suppose I should have expected no less from a landscaper. A 1956 yellow Volvo was parked there as was a mini-trailer in case he had overnight guests. Towards the back of his property was a wooden building, too large for a shed, too small to be a barn. There, he stored an exercise cycle and made wine. He devised some system to trap their cold night time air and keep the place naturally cool 24/7.

He had an incredible record collection and seemed personally connected to many of the artists. For years, I seem to recall, he managed an alternative radio station in San Francisco. His father, he explained, used to host poker games in Denver when Miles (Davis) and (Thelonius) Monk stopped there en route to LA.

His father was a fighter and his mother was circus performer. Hard to believe and yet not.  He had photos. He spent a month each winter in Mexico living in a small town near the beach. Such was his understanding of how to restore himself after tending to the gardens of Sonoma County’s wealthy. He seemed to know the best up and coming musical acts from the Bay to West Africa. And he whipped up a crème fraiche with eggs expelled from his own chickens. If his story of visiting a south side Chicago storefront church didn’t impress us, Rocco’s al fresco dinner whipped up on an abandoned professional grill that he re-furbished, served with a pinot whose grapes he crushed – he only became larger in our eyes.

I wanted to take a photo to remember the night. It was so magical! Everything; how tiny white lights and towering palm trees hung over the long glass table  in his yard, how the table was topped with homemade wine, artisan crafted crockery, and an anything but typical backyard barbecue menu featuring dishes like prosciutto wrapped around behemoth prawns. I fell in love with the eclectic range of collectibles that were just there.

I was in a near dream state when Rocco and Beverly walked us to our car. “Look at the sky,” he said, marveling at the view even after thousands of nights covered by their company.

Sure enough, the black sky was full of stars. We spied The Milky Way and more. Earlier in the evening Rocco explained that from March until November, he slept outside under this blanket of eternal lights.

I knew I could never capture the beauty of all these stars in a photo, but I remembered I had taken a picture of Rocco’s bed and the two canvas chairs that sat on his deck earlier. I decided I could always look at this picture and remember the image of the star-dusted sky he fell asleep under.

Having a friend who reminds you to look at the stars is no small thing.

Palms Up

palm SFJohn and I went to Alameda, around Oakland, to visit his mother for a week. Besides catching up with family, the trip gave us a chance to put on our tourist eyes.

While this was my second trip out there and I was already looking for familiar things, testing my memory on how to get back to Dee’s townhouse from Ole’s Waffle House or the closest Safeway, I also gave attention to looking for signs that I was away from home.

When traveling in the States, it’s easy to forget you’ve left home. We all have the same McDonald’s and CVS stores. Clear Channel affiliated radio stations rule their air waves, don’t they? People drive on the same side of the road and greenbacks don’t have to be exchanged for an ultra pliable paper currency that features stiff portraits of royals. Then again, sometimes California feels like a whole country itself; subject to its own laws and local customs.

They do not offer plastic bags in California stores. You must bring your own totes for groceries.  As a driver, you really have to stop when you see a pedestrian, and not just at crosswalks either, or tickets will be issued. And then there’s the trees…It’s a whole different world in our 31st state when it comes to foliage.

I have dedicated many blog posts to my love and appreciation for trees. Close to home, I have maple and elm and ginkgo. I am hopelessly enamored by the house on Leland that wears 18 painted wooden birdhouses in its branches like barrettes holding back braids. I was bowled over by the hundred year-old live oaks I saw in Louisiana along Plantation Row just outside of N’awlins.  But I have always had a weird reaction to palm trees, which are quite common here.

I have never seen palm trees as real trees. They have a Disneyland sort of look about them. When I have come out to the left coast before during December and have seen strings of tiny white lights lassoed around trunks of palms (if they can be called trunks) then strung upwards towards where the fruit would be (if you could call coconuts fruits), I would certainly feel justified in my pronouncement: Palms aren’t really any sort of tree. They certainly don’t cut it as Christmas trees.

For some reason, this trip, I was less inclined to think of palm trees as standard cartoon images dancing the mambo during a hurricane, or disappointingly inadequate homes for birds, or dangerously sparse jungle gyms for eight year olds. I just thought My, my my – the trees are sure different out here.

Seeing wide and bushy palms near the Embarcadero in San Francisco or their tall and gangly cousins in Sonoma County reminded me that trees are a great barometer for my awareness of being in a new environment. Noticing the palms and getting past my old associations as caricatures of trees, I began to tune in to, and appreciate, the real diversity of greenery on the coastal dessert.

I have always loved visiting Muir Woods when I’d come out here, but I thought of it as a special refuge for giant sequoias, their natural beauty confined to the park area. Now, I tuned in to all the different kinds of trees throughout the state; trees that flanked the highways, or guarded the vineyards, or even trees that filled in Dee’s yard in Alameda; redwoods, white firs, eucalyptus, cypress, elder, or juniper, and more.

Seeing so many varieties of something as familiar as a tree opened me up to appreciate all the variety, all the possibilities, that exist in so many things I see every day – and that’s no small thing.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

the girlsThey moved out of state to be with their men. They come back to visit every couple years – to be with the girls. To be GIRLS.

Lin moved to Sonoma seven years ago to reunite with her husband who decided to practice family medicine there.  Laura moved to the Twin Cities over fifteen years ago to start a second marriage and begin a second career.

I’ve known Laura for forty years and have known Lin for a few years longer. As high school freshmen, the three of us used to wear black matching turtle necks (from JC Penney) and tight fitting jeans and march down the streets of Melrose Park together like a determined, but hardly threatening, pack of cubs on a wilding. We called ourselves the Punkettes.

The annual Italian Feast in Melrose Park where we grew up was the main event Lin and Laura scheduled their travel plans around, but I simply think they were both due for a girls weekend. Yes, Laura craved an Italian beef sandwich, apparently a local delicacy that is not to be had in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I think Lin needed to laugh from her belly, which we all seem to do naturally when we get together.

We had dinner together at another friend’s Friday night and pulled up to Larry’s house on Saturday afternoon to properly launch our tour of Our Lady of Mount Caramel’s annual summer carnival.  Larry, a good high school buddy, was flattered that the girls were going to include him in our day’s plans. At this point, he didn’t know that he’d drop $20 trying to win a Carney grade stuffed panda for me.

When we called him on Friday to confirm our plans for the following day, he was more than excited.

“This will be fun,” he said. “I’m making Jell-O shots. We can do them at my place before we head to the Feast.”

As if we were still the Punkettes, Lin, Laura and I looked at each other.  None of us had done Jell-O shots before, but our reaction was Sure, why not? We were tickled Larry wanted to make something special for us.

While Lin, Laura, and I talked health, home repair, and other topics suiting our ages over the weekend, to a large degree, we acted very much like sixteen year-olds. We always seemed to be up to try something new.

We felt like we did when we were sixteen – when driving was new; when kissing was new; when we were probably equally preoccupied with fitting in and establishing a unique social identity.

And of course, we wanted to have fun. Maybe we succumbed to the thought that our adult lives were too complex to keep this a priority, but when we got together (okay, maybe aided by whipped cream topped cherry liqueur flavored Jell-O shots), FUN became Number ONE again.

For three days, we stopped watching our diets. We laughed until we made uncontrollable snorting noises we might not have felt free to do if our partners were within earshot. We interrupted each other without taking offense, enthusiastically wanting to interject a recollection of a personal experience before the memory became irrelevant. And we reminded each other that, essentially, we hadn’t changed in forty years.

For three days, three fifty-something year-old women lived like sixteen year-old girls – and that’s no small thing.

Made in the Shade

torta carte 1Shortly after leaving my house for a late-afternoon summer walk, I treaded over a swatch of asphalt where the bike path begins. Several different kinds of trees leaned over the surface; their branches not quite touching. The temperature seemed to drop 15-20⁰ here, not twenty yards from Lawrence Avenue.

The experience gave me a new goal. While I continued my walk with no particular destination in mind, I now had an intention. I wanted to locate places in my neighborhood that freely gave off shade.

I asked myself Where can shade by found? I noticed finding shade:

  • Behind the playground apparatus right before the end of West River Park
  • Under the high wall near the tennis courts
  • Behind the stadium bleachers at Holmgren Athletic Complex
  • Under the umbrella of Elena’s torta carte where she sells sandwiches and iced bottled water to the boys playing soccer
  • Under the viaduct roof near the water sanitation plant
  • Behind the wire construction fence around the community garden.
  • Under the gazebo trellis at Ravenswood Park.
  • Around the covered bus stop bench on Foster near California
  • On either side of the station house at the Francisco el train stop
  • Under the awning near the sliding glass doors entering Harvestime
  • Off the back of the truck where the seriously tattooed eighteen year-old and his uncle sells peaches
  • Behind the last garage on my alley, caddy corner from the body shop where no one should be working on a Sunday but often are
  • On my deck, sipping iced tea, underneath a couple hanging planters

Then I pondered the question in a bigger way. Where can shade be found? I considered that:

To a sun worshipper – shade can be found behind a wide-brimmed straw hat

To a child — shade can be found in the silhouette of a water fountain

To a pigeon – shade can be found under the discarded cardboard shell of a Budweiser 12-pack

To a leaf – shade can be found on the underside of a wooden bench

There is no absence of shade in my neighborhood.

When you find shade you can comfort yourself. You can find relief from the heat. You can contemplate the approaching sunset. You can pause to listen or to pick up a pen and write. You can take a long sip from that water bottle you always carry around with you.

Having an awareness of your size, the space you occupy in the world, can provide you with clues on where you can find shade for yourself. Knowing the time of day by shadows cast instead of by digital display changes your understanding of time. It can make its passing more real.

Taking a long walk close to home can put the sun in perspective, and that’s no small thing.

The Play’s the Thing

play in the park zoom2When I was coming home from my Sunday walk along the river, I made it a point to stop through Ravenswood Park. The park is always populated by dogs and their people, and I love to watch their Who’s Leading Who dance.

Today, I was extra delighted with my visit. A play was going on.

I guessed it was some sort of a Shakespearean comedy. A painted backdrop of a village was hung from a redwood trellis. The actors and actresses had youthful, pink complexions and sounded so earnest in their period roles. They seemed so passionate about performing, even in a park in front of only 30 people.

What an incredible labor of love, I thought; to put on a play in a park. So much work goes into memorizing lines and building a set, even a simple one, then designing posters then taping them in the windows of local cafes and small businesses.  And all of this was being done for only a couple performances.

I watched the farce for a few minutes, trying to see if I could tap into my history of English Lit classes to come up with the title and names of the heroes and heroines. I couldn’t help but notice how everyone in the park had made themselves comfortable.  People brought their own folding chairs, blankets and thermoses of iced tea (or perhaps something stronger). I imagined most of the crowd was friends or family of the performers, or neighbors or patrons of the shops that agreed to post signage in their windows.

It looked like some people planned to spend their afternoon here and others, like myself, tripped upon the production by accident and decided to stay, or at least decided to stay for a while.

While the play took center stage in Ravenswood Manor Park, I noticed that the play didn’t put a stop to life as usual in the little green triangle three blocks from my home. The park retained its defining features; the maple trees, and wood-chip filled play lot, hip-high hyacinths, U-shaped bicycle posts and gray picnic tables.

The blinking red warning alarm and gate that announced trains pulling into the Francisco Station continued to sound off during the performance.  Bunny rabbits and birds continued to scavenge for food scraps along the perimeter of the lawn.  Five year-old boys chased each other, carrying hollowed out Day-Glo orange clubs, more posturing than actually threatening, making sure that the gallery was never completely quiet.

I love surprises, but I had to wonder, what was the bigger surprise? Coming across a play in the park unexpectedly or realizing the play didn’t disturb anything that typically took place in the park? The play was just part of a bigger show.

When I think about it, there’s always something to look at. Usually, my attention will be captured by something more improvisational than scripted, but there are always opportunities to witness someone’s expression.

Today, the play’s the thing. Next week, I may be fascinated by watching girls in the park jumping Double Dutch with nylon ropes or a teen playing guitar by the swings.

I love surprises, but I don’t have to trip across an unexpected performance in the park to feel that I am witnessing something special.

The variety of ways people express themselves is as varied as waves rolling onto the shore. Life itself presents no end of entertaining or thought-provoking shows, and that’s certainly no small thing.


A Duck Was Here…But He Left

duckGeese are larger than ducks, and they honk instead of quack. Geese have very long necks while ducks have relatively shorter ones.

When I came home from my walk along the river, I reflected on the birds I saw right before the current sped up around the cluster of rocks. They rotated their wide, flat feet like fan blades underneath their oversized bodies, not seeming to move through the water very quickly at all considering their effort. Their necks were a shimmery sort of blue-green, between jade and teal. Were they ducks or geese? I wondered.

It wasn’t long before I consulted online resources on the subject. I also tried to recall the exact way the birds at the Botanic Gardens looked when I went there a few weeks earlier. Through my research, it seemed that what I had seen at the Botanic Gardens, between the waterfall and the Japanese meditation island, was a raft of ducks and what I saw today was a gaggle of geese. (I looked up the terms raft and gaggle online as well.)

My curiosity around the difference between the two species was piqued by my impression that they were basically very similar. I have an almost automatic reaction, when things are outwardly similar, to try to find distinctions so that I can appreciate their uniqueness.

Through my research, I discovered that geese generally eat grass from meadows while ducks tend to dine on waterfront bugs and weeds; male and female geese tend to be colored the same while male and female ducks are colored differently; duck nostrils are located much higher on their beaks and their beaks are not as sharp. They have different migratory habits. Geese migrate much farther.

I noticed that in my quest to uncover small distinctions between them, I wasn’t paying much attention to the small differences in my reactions to them. Truth is, I reacted differently.

I seem to get more excited when I see geese because I think they are rarer here in northern Illinois. I think of geese as birds of flight, oddly programmed to go on great journeys with their extended families, never declaring anywhere home, eating on the run, and flying with a kind of grace that defies their size.

I tend to think of ducks as nesters, as territorial, as people-like, and when I watch them I think of families, of actual generations within a line, claiming a spot in a river or pond as their permanent home. I noticed I looked at geese with a kind of curiosity and awe and looked at ducks with a more sentimental impulse. I wanted to tag the ones I watched as momma, poppa, and junior.

When I was nineteen, I had a mondo crush on a guy who was maybe a couple years older. To me, he was a cross between Pablo Neruda and the Marlboro Man. In my teenage mind he was kind of a cowboy poet. His thin hips were always covered in old Levi’s. He read Sartre.

I remember becoming entranced with a story he used to tell, about staying out all night with his friends in an area park — in the rain — and describing how wet and miserable they were even though he obviously looked at the experience with great fondness.

He relayed how one of his buds erupted with a statement, a type of koan, they all took as a kind of shared revelation (probably because they were high). Then they disbanded and everyone went home to drier environments.

He said, “A duck was here… but he left.”

When I first observed the two different birds then researched their distinctions, I dwelled on the world outside of me and forgot the importance of my inner world; the small distinctions I could notice in me.

I also seemed to forget perhaps the biggest reason to be grateful for an awareness of any little thing. That moment passes quickly.

Remembering to appreciate one’s inner experience and honor any moment is no small thing.

Second Summer

lawrence coop garden 22

Our first summer in the neighborhood blossomed with flights of fancy. They were usually triggered by sightings of places that looked interesting. We romanticized about places we had to try based on drive-by glimpses on the way to other places or from things I noticed during midday walks.

It was easy to love what we saw. We were enamored with the newness of things, the unique character of places; the way that, in our neighborhood, the train ran on street level and not overhead, or how the nexus of one-way streets kept Monty’s Philly Steak Sandwich shop a pleasure only true locals were likely to enjoy.

It’s easy to love something when it’s new. It doesn’t require any work. I didn’t realize it until this past week, but my second summer in this neighborhood, compared with the kind of high school crush that took over me during my first summer, was a perfect mirror, a perfect metaphor for my relationship with my partner.

John and I moved in to our two-flat in April of 2012. Our basement flooded during our first week, but we settled in. We put up window treatments and hung new address numerals by our front door.

Then we began to explore the neighborhood. We discovered that the Francisco Street train stop had a second entrance only a block from our back porch. On a walk, I discovered a beautiful house and garden with an incredible oak tree whose outstretched branches held 18 painted wooden birdhouses. We paid attention to the many small parks that would be perfect for walks should we decide to adopt a shelter pup.

But we only looked at things on the surface.

Almost every day, we would walk or drive past a community garden. It occupied a considerable stretch of land between a townhouse development and the riverside bike path.

Between our first summer here and our second summer, we could see that the garden project had been undergoing a lot of growth. Behind the wire fence, this year there seemed to be more wooden partitions identifying plots and many, many more people with plastic buckets and garden tools digging around the dirt.

But I never ventured a closer look – until now.

I walked past the opening in the wire gate and saw an old man in a worn suit calling out to his granddaughter or great-granddaughter. Judging from their coloring and features, I think they were from Guatemala. I think he was teaching her about farming. Maybe he was teaching her about life.

I began looking around a caged area where hose nozzles and small pieces of wire and fabric were kept (for labeling crops, I guessed). I searched for a phone number so I could get more information. Then I saw the sign: Garden Rules: 1. We grow edibles only….

While I read the rest of the rules, the young girl approached me. She acted as if I was in her garden (and I suppose it was hers as much as anyone’s). She wanted to see if she could answer any question the sign didn’t. “Linda runs the garden,” she told me. “I think it costs $10 to grow things here.”

After I left the garden, I came home and Googled The Peterson Garden Project. It was a not-for-profit interested in helping people learn how to grow their own food and community. The cost of membership turned out to be more than the $10 the girl from the Global Garden told me but well worth the price for the experience.

And I thought about my relationship with John and how some things seemed to be more complex, more challenging than during our first summer together. I thought about how The Rules were posted so clearly at the garden and at the Peterson Garden Project website.

You have to have rules and a commitment to play by the rules if you are to have a community, even if that is a community of two. You have to be willing to work on your garden, in your plot, if you want things to grow.

I was so happy I walked through the gate of the garden. I am happy I decided to look beyond my infatuations with the neighborhood; the plethora of kabob houses two blocks away and the great view of the river from the bridge on Wilson Avenue. I am grateful I made a second summer type of effort to actually look into something instead of content myself with a fantasy of its potential.

Answering a call from the universe, sent to you right where you live, is no small thing.

Flower Girl

yellow flower with friendsI like to buy fresh cut flowers once a week, arrange them in a vase and place them on the credenza in my dining room. It gives me a lot of pleasure to have them in the same room where I eat. Flowers are beautiful. They’re temporal. They’re life.

I will enjoy noticing flowers when I’m walking in my neighborhood. Unlike my friends Laura or Holly, I probably could not name more than the varieties most commonly bundled at the grocery chain’s flower department, but I like looking at them all the same.

When I walk by someone’s yard, I will marvel at how much work a home gardener will put in, selecting a color palate for their flower boxes or small yards and then prune and weed and water and watch until their seedlings grow. I will be equally amazed to look at wildflowers growing, undisturbed, alongside of railroad tracks; popping up and swaying in the breeze despite not being tended to.

I guess you could say I’m a flower girl.

When I am feeling blue or want an extra dose of natural beauty, I may make an excursion to a greenhouse or a garden. During the winter, I’ll visit the iron and glass conservatory near the Lincoln Park Zoo and wallow in the hundreds of potted mums on display. In June, it feels like a cosmic necessity that I drive twenty miles north to the Chicago Botanical Gardens for the roses. They’re in full bloom and have not yet wilted from too much summer heat.

I went to the Garden with a friend the other day. I must have driven her crazy, stopping so often to take pictures. I insisted on getting a map and then completely ignored it, deciding instead to follow my instincts and just wander down different paths.

Why do I like flowers so much?  Why do they make me feel so happy?

They make me grateful for all my senses. Their colors can be so vivid, their fragrances so strong. They can have oddly prickly parts, but mostly they tease you with their indescribable softness. I don’t generally taste flowers or listen to their words, but in a garden I can imagine their conversations. My mind can play games around what their colors might taste like at the peak of their season.

Flowers are not self-conscious. I love this. A flower will never refuse to open because there’s a really beautiful flower already turning its best side to the sun fifty feet away.

Flowers accept the ebb and flow of life. They adapt to the conditions of the soil they live in and surrender to the elements that surround them.

Flowers remind me of people at their best. Each flower, like each person, is unique. Yet somehow, when looking into the individual folds and shades of a flower, I will also think about how I can see every flower in the one right in front of me. They’re made out of the same stuff and experience life pretty much the same way.

Being in a garden, or holding a flower, is such a great opportunity to appreciate individuality and community, what’s unique and what’s commonly shared, and that’s no small thing.

Lunch with Larry (phonecohen)

larry's face-caricatureI think most people have experienced getting an email from someone who they’ve lost touch with; an old flame, a former co-worker or collaborator, a mentor.

I was surprised when I got an email from Larry.  He traced a trail of connection suggestions on LinkedIn until he found me.

I met Larry over ten years ago through a professional writers association. Neither of us fit the typical member profile. His professional background emphasized creative work, including some copywriting, at mid-sized ad agencies. I was neither a novelist nor a journalist. I wrote some how to material but wouldn’t have described myself as a technical writer.

He was a deeply feeling person and had an ironic sense of humor. His business card was made of a sort of brownish card stock and on the back, hand-stamped with an ink blotter, were the words, “Sealed for your protection.”

After a few weeks of postponing getting together, he stopped over for a visit and a short walk to First Slice, a neighborhood café and sandwich shop where we planned to have lunch.

As if no time had elapsed since our last schmooz fest, we provided clues for where each others’ narratives should pick up. I recalled what was happening in his life. (You were going through a divorce. Your son wasn’t speaking to you. Etc.) He performed a similar service for me. (The last time we connected, you had just broken up with the artist and wrote that story. Pretty racy.)

Taking his cues, I shared other factoids from my life; how my mother had passed away a couple years earlier and about how my boyfriend and I bought this great building. He said “I’m sorry” at all the right places and bubbled over with “Just beautiful” at all the right places too.

He confirmed some things I already knew about his life, that his marriage was unimaginably hollow and his divorce was beyond painful. Then he gushed about the unconditional love he has been receiving from his current partner. I was so happy for him on hearing his relationship news.

Before we left my kitchen to walk to my neighborhood café, he began sharing his adventures, or misadventures, trying to find work as a man in his sixties.

“Why don’t you just do caricatures?” I tossed out, knowing he had a talent for this.

“Sh. Sh,” he said holding up his hand, the telling of his story obviously being more important than arriving at a conclusion.

He told me about landing a copy writing job with a big corporation where he was embraced for his keen understanding of what needed to be communicated then was let go after a change in supervisors. He participated in a re-training program in computer design, but wasn’t able to see the re-training culminate in a new career. He told me about how, as a retail salesman, he was wrongly accused of merchandise theft and then held up as an award-winning example of customer service by the same management team.

“Phone Cohen,” he confided to me. That’s what people in his shop used to say about him because Larry Cohen could listen to customers and make them feel important then cut through red tape to solve any problem.

“Why didn’t you just do caricatures?” I echoed my earlier suggestion.

Again, he held up his hand. “Sh. Sh.”

He continued his saga, explaining how he did turn to doing caricatures, unexpectedly adding that he did this type of work at Great America.

“See,” I chided him, hoping we would get to the happily ever after part. Instead, like a seasoned voice-over guy peddling Popeil miracle devices for the kitchen, he cautioned me. “But wait.  There’s more.”

Doing caricatures in the sun at Great America among twenty-something year-old face sketchers who, while not as character-rich, could render serviceable likenesses in a third less time led to a long talk with management. This was followed by a reduction in hours which was followed by his decision to just manage his own business doing caricatures for parties, corporate events, invitations, unique facebook faces and such.

He handed me a business card. Of course the card featured a current caricature. His face, his hairline and the frames of his glasses spoke volumes about a man who tried to keep his dignity and sense of humor while life was not always kind.

“I’ll do your caricature if you like,” he offered as I asked him for second and third cards to give to friends.

Ha, I thought.  I didn’t even have to say I told you so about how he came to his new vocation.

Having lunch with an old friend who is not afraid to show his story in his face and is proud of his ability to show you your story in a picture is no small thing.

Returning to the Scene

back of zumba cafe

When I first got off the beltway, I tried to equate what I saw with what I remembered. I smiled when I passed Ken’s Meat Market, the Java Cat coffee shop and Michael’s Frozen Custard, which was right across from the Monona Lakeview Apartments where I lived.  

In police parlance, my two-day excursion to Madison could have been thought of as returning to the scene of the crime. I came to Madison in October 2007 because I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere in particular. I was not comfortable with my family relationships. I didn’t have an employer or a sweetheart, and I was willing to find out if I could create a sense of belonging in a new place.

I let the sight of a full moon over Lake Mendota while boating with friends serve as a sign that moving to Madison (Wisconsin) should be the next logical step in my personal journey. As it turned out, finding a new job and integrating into new networks did not come easily.

I volunteered to usher at the Bartell Theatre. I took an improv course at the Coliseum Bar (from The Monkey Business Institute), and I met a handful of wonderful women and wrote with them once a week at a small arts center on Baldwin. I chanted and meditated in a shakti-filled hall at the eastern edge of town regularly.

But I never really became involved in theatre happenings at the Bartell (I did not share any sort of history with the resident companies). While I used to think of myself as a clever quipster, in ensemble exercises with much younger people, I was simply not very funny. And I never saw anyone from my writing group in between Wednesday nights.

I was not discovering a new sense of belonging. I was, in fact, having a new, deeper experience of feeling lost. I traded in one set of temp jobs in Chicago for a different set of temp jobs in Dane County.  The time I spent at my meditation center was sweet, but it engaged that part of me that recognizes I share the same inner space with everyone. I never went to the Cineplex or hung out at the mall with anyone I shared this space with.

Feeling lost was not just a generalized state. It was my everyday experience. With five lakes that dictated the layout of major thoroughfares, I was rarely able to get from one side of town to the other without consulting a map.

I saw counselors. I toyed with the idea of taking meds. I prayed. Between moments of surrender (What else could I do?), I spent a lot of time in bed shaking. My body just trembled.

And so it came to pass that just as I interpreted a full moon over Lake Mendota as a sign I should start a new life here, I interpreted a weekend job in Chicago as a good enough reason to move back.

Then life happened. Life kept happening. My car accident, my mother’s death, a few relationships with their corresponding break-ups, my trip to France and Spain, buying a new car, developing a relationship with John and buying a building together, hosting a few holiday meals (an unfamiliar family role for me).

I am sitting in the backyard garden of Cafe Zoma now, a green space the coffee shop shares with Absolutely Art, right by the bike path and community garden. I have often thought about my 10 months in Madison and my return to Chicago, to the city of straight streets and alleys. This is the first time I have been back.

People have often asked me if I regretted having come out here, assuming that since my life didn’t take root after moving here almost six years ago, it meant that I should look at the decision as a mistake.

Right now, my near year here feels like my junior year in high school. I was very aware of not fitting in. Maybe I could compare the daily trauma of finding myself on a dead-end without a clue on how to get back to Midvale or Willy Street to episodes of being bullied in the girls’ bathroom at Proviso East.

Then I will think about Friday arts walks or sunsets on Lake Monona, or drinking Spotted Cow at the Harmony Grill, or biking to the Capitol (at 284 feet, only 3 feet shorter than the nation’s Capitol), and I can’t imagine being where I am, being WHO I am, without my time in Dane County.

Time has a wonderful way of soothing pains and helping you recall good things.

You can’t see how you’ve grown until you can look at what you’ve grown through, and that’s no small thing.


Sleeping in The City that Never Sleeps

new york 3Our calendar was more than full during the four and a half days we stayed in New York. I have been to New York several times and never seem to grow tired of visiting. Besides its many attractions, the energy of the city itself is amped up. New York vibrates with aliveness.

The place mystifies me, too. When I fly into LaGuardia, when I look at the island of Manhattan from the air, I wonder how the whole damn island does not simply turn over on its side and sink into the Atlantic. It seems to be too top-heavy to stand up so straight. And, considering the density of people and buildings, it also floors me how, between narrow corridors in museums or tucked away in leafy glades in Central Park, you can still find places where you feel like the only person in the universe.

Our first night started in Queens, in Forest Hills, where we introduced ourselves to the doorman at my cousin’s building then lugged our suitcases to the bank of elevators and on to the twelfth floor. He graciously gave us use of his apartment while he and his girlfriend were in Costa Rica.

After getting settled, we walked over to the nearest subway stop, just over a mile away, and headed to the West Village. We tripped upon an outdoor café that served hand-shaped pizzas made with locally sourced ingredients then hung out at the Blue Note.  Along with a group of Japanese businessmen who also sat at our table, we enjoyed some virtuoso R&B musicians mere feet from the stage.

After a long subway ride back to Queens and what seemed to be a longer walk from the subway back to my cousin’s building, we re-traced our steps to his corner unit, brushed our teeth and stretched out in bed.

It was impossible not to blink our eyes a few times. Although we were exhausted from our nightlife adventure, it felt like the Long Island Expressway and Grand Central Parkway were actually running through the bedroom of the apartment. It was almost three in the morning, but the cars and trucks speeding away nearby did not seem to care that they were making so much noise at such an inconvenient time. We were definitely in the city that never sleeps, hoping ardently that we would somehow discover a way to do just that.

And we did. We slept soundly. We dreamed vividly. Our dreams were populated by the faces we saw on the subway and decorated with corner fruit stands and the pizza by the slice signs we passed while rushing off to planned destinations.

We spent the entire next day in Brooklyn. We cruised through the old Hassidic section of Williamsburg by car, Brooklyn Heights and Prospect Park by foot. We indulged ourselves with happy hour cocktails at Watty and Meg’s on Court Street, chatted up our waiter at The Station on 7th (he was from Italy) and peered through the windows of dozens of young hipster bars near Metropolitan and Bedford before heading home.

Again, when we got back to home base and stretched out in bed, we could not ignore the loud chorus of nighttime street noises.  Again, we wondered whether the sandman would ever come for us.

Each of the following nights, after equally full days, including one night we spent in New Jersey visiting friends, we lay in bed and heard the non-stop whirring of traffic nearby. Each night, after slipping between the sheets, these sounds seemed especially loud and insistent. Each night we worried about whether we would be able to fall asleep. This always seemed to be our last thought … before we fell asleep.

What an amazing thing; the way the body’s craving for rest transcends the noise and busyness of the city, how being thoroughly mentally and physically tired transcends unfamiliarity and the anxiety of our own thoughts. We were so physically worn out from walking and so satiated in our desire to experience new things that we couldn’t fight the lure of sleep despite our belief that it would be impossible to come by in a strange bed with so much noise and commotion around us.

That the body is so wise to know how to find sleep in the city that never sleeps s no small thing.


Yale Commencement“It was great, but too long. I don’t know why they had to stretch things out over three days.”

In the days following our visit to New Haven to participate in commencement festivities for John’s son Paul and Yale’s class of 2013, he must have been asked about his experience a dozen times. I think I knew the wording of his response by heart.

True enough, it took over 48 hours for the official ceremonies and receptions, family reunions and lesser traditions attached to the event to take place. Many printed programs were required. But I could not imagine, nor would I have wanted things to happen differently, and I didn’t even have a son or daughter getting a degree.

On Saturday afternoon, as soon as we were able to stash our rental car, we each grabbed a small bottle of water and filed into a balcony row at Woolsey Hall for the baccalaureate ceremony. It had already started. There, a full choir sang hallelujah type hymns and we heard addresses by the dean of Yale College and by college president Richard Levin who, planning to retire from his post after the 2013 class graduated, sounded like he was preparing for a new career in politics.  Baccalaureate ceremonies were followed by lots of photo-taking on the old campus and the amazing dance of family members finding each other despite no agreed on meeting arrangements. (Someone should study how this works; how people can find their tribe among 3000 other people looking for theirs.)

On Sunday afternoon, we seated ourselves in garden party suitable white folding chairs that had been set up in the courtyard of the old campus for Class Day festivities, and we prayed that the rain would hold off until the main speaker concluded.  Rain during graduation, we learned later from a bartender on Chapel Street, was another tradition of the occasion.

Cory Booker, the young mayor of Newark, Obama-esque in his oratory style, did not disappoint. A Yale Law School graduate, he spoke appropriately of the importance of vision, presence and service, paying homage repeatedly to his family’s patriarchs and matriarchs and to his personal mentors.

I delighted in another Class Day tradition where the new graduates wore personally designed hats to go with their somber black academic robes.  We saw Paul Revere style tri-corner hats along with laurel wreaths along with an aluminum foil fashioned Hershey Kiss topper along with a cap that featured a model of a molecule; no doubt, in deference to a chosen field of study.

The actual procession of graduates and conferring of degrees took place on Monday.

In between scheduled events, we witnessed other rituals that were just as important as those signaled by invocations and marching. We watched the Class of 2013 introduce friends to parents and parents to friends, seemingly bracing themselves to be embarrassed by each other’s perfunctory “I’ve heard so much about you” reactions.

Paul, who enjoyed singing in one of Yale’s famous a capella groups invited us to join some of his buds and their parents at an Indian restaurant for a last supper of sorts. There, six boys rocked the small storefront with their harmonies (amazingly after hearty servings of garlic naan and saag paneer).

And I started thinking about the words graduation and commencement; two words for basically the same occasion, two ceremonies to celebrate the same stage in life. I guess I like the idea of commencement better. I must like to think about beginnings as opposed to endings although celebrating your accomplishments is an integral part of honoring yourself and imagining possibilities.

In one of his plays, Tom Stoppard wrote, “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”

Commencement ceremonies mark the end of an academic challenge and the beginning period of applying knowledge. Sunrises mark the end of the night and beginning of the day. Purchasing transactions mark the end of shopping and the beginning of ownership.

So many moments in life mark endings and beginnings. So rarely do we give ourselves time to pause and reflect over what those endings and beginnings may mean to us personally. So seldom can we see that we are experiencing something important with so many others at the same time.

Pausing to reflect on commencement, or, if you prefer, on graduation ceremonies, is no small thing.

Up in the Air

plane shot 1I love to fly.  That is, I love the actual flying part of air travel.  I am not crazy about self-serve check-in kiosks, airport security, or boarding periods where passengers seem to show the worst of human nature and try to claim as much overhead storage space as possible.

Once I am up in the air, looking out the window, marveling at how 180 souls are skimming a layer of clouds in a glorified metal tube, I can’t help but be wowed.

I love having this vantage point for looking at the world. It makes me feel small and significant at the same time. I am just a single pair of eyes looking at the whole of things from the heavens.

Before ascending to cruising level, during take-offs when I am very aware of the unnatural aspect of traversing the sky in a metal tube, and even when landing, when the abstract patchwork quilt of farms, blocks of houses, or highway clover leafs become concrete and clearly recognizable, I will find myself praying for safety. When I experience pockets of turbulence, too, I will shut my eyes and start talking to God.

When John and I flew out to New York Saturday, I had yet another flying experience. When we hit some bumpy air, I closed my eyes and listened to the coded series of ring tones airlines use for cockpit personnel to communicate with their flight crew. Then the captain’s or co-pilot’s voice came on over the loudspeaker, a strong male voice with a slight southern accent. In his voice, I heard a sort of seriousness without panic as safety instructions were given.

“…At this time, we ask that you please keep your seat belts on. It is advisable that you do not use the lavatory now. And please, do not attempt to apply lipstick…”

Wait a minute, I thought to myself. Did I just hear what I think I heard?  I started laughing. My belly started to move in and out reflexively. My shallow breathing got deeper and the tension in my hands melted. I opened my eyes and stopped praying. I looked around the cabin. Some passengers, probably seasoned travelers, did not look up from their laptops or shake their heads free from their IPhone ear buds, but I caught smiles on many of the faces around me.

Do not attempt to apply lipstick…That comment was rich. Later in the flight, as we started our descent into LaGuardia, the member of the cockpit comedy crew made a few other remarks.

“We realize that you have your choice of carriers when booking air travel. Since we want you to give us the business, we hope you don’t mind us taking you for a ride.”

Can I get a drum roll, please? What schtick!

And after we landed, when we were taxiing up to our gate and passengers began the ritual of rushing into the aisles despite not being able to get on their way any faster, the disembodied voice, sounding almost like a Sunday School preacher, came on the loudspeaker again with “All rise.”

These bits of humor put me in a good mood that lasted for hours. I had to ask myself why.

There is something wonderful about hearing a message delivered in a manner that feels incongruous to the situation. Comedians like Steven Wright always crack me up because of their deadpan delivery. The fact that the person making the joke is someone I wouldn’t expect to make a joke also amplifies my delight.  (Humor coming from a commercial airline pilot? Really!)

I think, though, I was most affected by the touch of humor during the minute of air turbulence. When I looked at myself and confronted my fears over safety and loss of control, I knew that half of the other passengers probably stopped praying and started laughing at the same moment I did.

A little levity at 27,000 feet in the air (or 2700 feet from baggage claim) is no small thing.

Spring Week

spring treeThere’s a silly saying we like to use in Chicago, something about there being only two (not four) seasons. “There’s winter and construction,” we’d commiserate with our neighbors.

We’d smile at the shared misery in this truth; that in our fabulous city on Lake Michigan, we tend to have winters that seemingly go on and on without end, marked by gridlock in the streets, and summers that are so hot and humid the concrete buckles and there’s a public works project under every streetlamp, also meaning gridlock on the roads.

There is, of course, another irony here, which we don’t talk about. That is that we actually have spring, but it only lasts for a week. There is usually one week of perfection, around mid-May, where everything simply blooms. Spring Week is often sandwiched between cold rains and heat waves. When the Bears start training camp in a few months, we can easily forget that we experienced this perfection at all.

For one week, everything alive and green goes berserk. Fully blossomed branches of magnolia trees fan out over residential streets brushing the tops of soccer mom driven SUVs. Grass from small lawn patches grow faster and bushier than the green faux fur of a Chia Pet.

Spring Week fills everyone with an unabashed sort of giddiness as if the world has gone skinny dipping and no one cares if grumpy old Mr. Wilson is going to tell everyone’s folks.

Spring Week is perfect in its brevity because, short though it may be, it does the job. The sudden greening and opening of nature re-charges us and re-vitalizes us. Its entrance into the cycles of our lives doesn’t come a moment too soon either. Just when we think we can’t take gray anymore, we realize we can open our windows and turn down our thermostats. We don’t have to accept gray anymore.

Its magic is potent, strong enough to shake us out of hibernation. We can find beauty in every bud, possibilities in every seedling.

But Spring Week is about more than beauty. I know that when I was walking near Horner Park the other day and saw these incredible flowering trees hanging over the sidewalk near the tennis courts, I was bowled over. When I told my friend Nick about my walk and started to describe the white to blush coloring of the petals, he finished my sentence for me.

At first I thought, he must have seen the same tree. Then I wondered maybe he saw the same type of tree. Then I realized maybe he just saw a tree the same way. With a keen appreciation for every detail you can notice in the moment and an even greater appreciation for being alive at a time when everything is coming to life, Spring invites us all to see with our hearts.

The short duration of spring doesn’t diminish its vibrancy or its rejuvenating impact on our souls.

Immersing yourself in Spring Week is no small thing.

Getting Better

Buddha17For the past several months, I have been on a mission to spread the word about my attitude of gratitude writing practice. It’s had a huge impact on my life.

While this blog has been going for almost three years and I have regular readers, I don’t have many registered subscribers. Opportunities to guest blog, I decided, might be the best way to direct some new eyes to my journal entries on gratitude and spark interest in my writing and reflection practice.

I started Googling for popular blogs on mindfulness, gratitude, self-improvement, change.  I decided to look for high traffic sites featuring compatible themes and submit an article with a byline that included my blog’s url.

My search introduced me to I liked the look and the spirit of it. The founder, Lori Deschene, seemed to have actually created a community around her site. It was more than a weigh station for the self-promotionally-inclined. She welcomed guest bloggers, but also encouraged conversations that could be sparked by TB’s content.

I read her submission guidelines. They called for original work, experience stories, relating to well-categorized Tiny Buddha quotes.

I understood that this was an opportunity to write something from an authentic experience. The truth of the experience itself and the vulnerability of me being willing to share it would invite more real connection than anything my audience-seeking brain could probably conjure up.

So what kind of wisdom could I share?  What have I learned lately that meant things were changing in my life, that I was changing for the better?  I looked through the Tiny Buddha Quotes on mindfulness.

The next message you need is always right where you are.  Ram Das   

And I started thinking about how I have changed. I understood that my impulse to keep a blog and teach people what I learned from my attitude of gratitude writing practice reflected a huge change in me, a huge change from who I was as a child when I was convinced no one would care to hear what I thought or had to say.

I wrote about my newfound voice and my newfound belief that I did, in fact, have something worth sharing. This message came out very naturally through a family story; the unexpected reversal of roles between my older sister and me. After she had a small, cancerous growth removed from her right lung last year, she actually looked to ME, her habitually self-unemployed younger sister, to teach her something about mindfulness and living in the present moment.

When the piece was done, I pressed the SEND key with hope and yet with a sort of detachment. I did  my best while staying true to published writer’s guidelines and true to my experience of events. I sent the submission on the appointed date and didn’t check my inbox hourly for notifications.

A couple days later, I got the sweetest most heartening “I liked it, but…” note I could have ever imaged coming from an editor or publisher. Lori Deschene wrote:

Are you open to some revision on the post? … I think it would set the post up a little better if you somehow mentioned the mindfulness theme a little earlier. Let me know what you think!

I re-read the post. Of course she was absolutely right. I easily added two short paragraphs at the beginning and re-submitted the piece.

It was funny, I thought, in retrospect, but it never occurred to me that I was being criticized. The recommended change so clearly came from a good place. Her comments were aimed at helping me be more effective in communicating an experience.  They were not aimed at proving me less worthy as a writer.

Understanding that a suggestion to make a change is not about tearing me down but about making something I value better is no small thing.


Rich Man, Poor Man…Rich Man

dollar tree insideAccording to the Internal Revenue Service, 20-25% of all Americans wait until the last two weekends before the April 15th deadline to prepare their returns. I can’t think of another event for which procrastination seems so justifiable.

I understand some people like to create budgets and organize personal data, but I certainly don’t. And, as I am fond of joking, I come from a long line of people who pay other people to do these kinds of things for me, I hired an accountant to sort out my earnings and expenses and make sure I’ve been following the tax code.

Like all my American brothers and sisters — employed, unemployed, and under-employed, rich, poor, and in-between, I stood in line at the post office Saturday to send my return and check to the IRS in Cincinnati by registered mail. (I filed and paid a small amount to the state of Illinois online.)

I am fortunate, I know. I have more than enough to eat and a nice home. I also recognize that paying taxes is actually paying for many services I use. Still, I owed money this year and sending of a chunk of change when I have not been seeing checks come in regularly causes me more than a little discomfort.

I caught myself feeling sort of poor while trying to remind myself I am really very well-off.  This actually caused a sense of dissonance in my body. My body hates it when I try to be Pollyanna when I actually feel more like Grumble-stilskin.  I knew I couldn’t just tell myself something I wanted to believe, I had to feel what I wanted to believe.

I went to the Dollar Tree.

The Dollar Tree is a store, one of a chain that exists all over Chicago, maybe all over the States.  My favorite one is in a strip mall near a building that was once an all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet, within yards of a liquor store and a small postal station. Their aisles are stacked with party supplies, toys, household items (even some name brands), health and beauty products (they have loads of things in trial sizes), seasonal home décor products, and a few grocery items I would mostly categorize as snacks.

For only a dollar, I could buy a set of five Day-Glo necklaces, or a small plastic bottle of Ajax liquid (they have the orange and yellow kind), or a package of large manila envelopes, or a new toothbrush or potholder, or party plates with matching cups in a veritable rainbow of colors.

I love going to the Dollar Tree.  It’s a place where I can indulge myself on small whim purchases and stretch my imagination.  I never would have thought about getting mambo striped glass tumblers for summertime drinks or purple paper plates until I saw them. When I go to Dollar Tree, I can also get a futuristic laser gun-like water pistol, large sandwich bags, a cobalt blue martini glass, a birthday card, and a jar of peanut butter for $5.00.  This delights me. Free parking is a bonus too. Shopping at the Dollar Tree is such an easy way to feel rich.

I didn’t try to feel rich by telling myself there were so many who were less fortunate than me. I felt rich because there were so many things I could buy that could delight me.

Being delighted by unexpected consumer options is no small thing.

Own It. Wear It.

Last Monday, I checked out a new writers group that I’ve been thinking about joining. Poets and playwrights, true crime tale spinners, and authors of historical fiction came prepared with copies of recent efforts.
Throughout the two hours I spent as a visitor, I listened to each writer read his (or her) material out loud. But I had problems concentrating. I couldn’t keep from staring at one member’s sweatshirt. It read:

Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.

Ha. That’s a good one, I thought. I like to think of intelligent, insightful people, instead of athletic or fashionable types, getting the last laugh. I like the idea of a simple but witty scribe holding this kind of power. Yes, I concluded, the saying on this shirt was referring to someone like me.

I also liked the idea that Barry (the man making a personal and fashion statement) was willing to tell people he was a writer. He was willing to declare himself a wordsmith and willing to wear the self-ascribed label in public.

Am I ready to own what’s important to me? To declare it? To wear it?

After smiling inwardly at Barry’s chutzpah for wearing his writerly interests on his chest, I scanned the Internet for other catchy tee shirt sayings that might speak for me and what’s important to me. I actually saw one that read, No one cares about your blog. The idea that there would actually be a tee shirt marketed with this sentiment made me laugh for a moment. It’s funny when something or someone says what other people might be thinking but are afraid to say out loud. Then I stopped to ponder my own efforts on this evolving journal of appreciation and gratitude.

I started writing essays about little things I felt grateful for about three years ago. This writing practice has become an important part of my life. As I reflected on the sources of gratitude and joy for me, I developed a greater capacity to see little things within the moments of my life that brought me more happiness. In other words, having an attitude of gratitude writing practice has made me happier.

So I have to ask myself, Why don’t I just keep a journal? Why do I need to post my thoughts on the Internet? Am I writing for me, or am I writing for someone else?

I think the answer is both. I write because it helps me understand my own thinking more clearly.  Writing has always been a great way for me to understand myself and make choices that are aligned with what I value.

But I am writing for others too. I put time into cleaning up each entry and making sure personal material would make sense to someone else. I keep this blog because I want to provide actual examples of how I trace a brief awareness back to a core understanding of what it is in an experience that gives me joy and stirs feelings of gratitude so that others may be encouraged to practice similar kinds of mindfulness in their lives.

I don’t know that I’ll get a tee shirt made that says Read my blog in large block letters, but I am not ashamed to tell people to check out No Small Thing. I am ready to declare that I have something of value to share.

Being able to own who you are and what you have to give is no small thing

Memory Maids

Last week, when I went to our refrigerator to get a glass of cold water, I saw an unfamiliar yellow-orange dot of light glowing from the top of the display. Under the glowing dot were the words Water Filter and explanations for different color codes. Hmm. I pulled out the Frigidaire® manual which was filed away with pounds of other warranty cards and manuals. The light was telling me that it was time to order a new filter. I read the ordering instructions and noted how often filters typically needed changing (every 200 gallons) – and I then marveled.

Isn’t it great that the fridge knows when its parts need to be replaced?

I started to think about the many systems that are in place in my life so that I don’t have to spend energy trying to remember details that don’t affect me in the moment. It’s like having a maid for my memory.

Yes, I can record appointments, even phone calls, in Outlook and program alarms so that I receive notifications a week before, a day before, or an hour before a scheduled event. But there are memory maids in my life that live outside of my computer.

I get notices from Jiffy Lube or my car dealer when I need to have routine maintenance. I’ll get confirming calls from restaurants the day before a reservation to remind me of arrangements I may have made weeks earlier. I get silly postcards from my dentist, usually with grinning orange Garfield cartoons, to remind me it’s time to have my teeth cleaned. I get notices from the library when a book is a week overdue so that I don’t inadvertently rack up excessive fines.

I often balk at invitations to get me to be more organized. I am not an organized person by nature. I have mountains of legal pads and loaded Pend-o-flex file folders because I am resistant to rely on paperless computer directories. I leave myself Post-its® everywhere to help me jog my memory about things I might want to buy at the store.

But tools for helping me keep appointments or remember promises – I feel a great debt of gratitude for things that help me on these counts.

I view time as precious, and I don’t want to miss anything that may be important. I don’t want to be disrespectful of any friend or colleague with whom I made plans who may be counting on connecting at a certain time.

In some ways, I think time is one of the few things of any intrinsic value. I consider what I spend my time on to be a total reflection of what’s really important to me.

I know that while I love to test my memory (I am good at recalling zip codes, song lyrics, and menus from stellar restaurant meals eaten since I was eight years old), trying to juggle details about where I need to be or what I need to respond to based on old promises, is a mental chore I would just as well farm out.

Thanks to all the memory maids in my life, the people and systems in place that absolve me of the need to keep track of many things directly.

With my maidssilently keeping watch for me, I can give my full attention to what I am experiencing in the present moment, and that’s no small thing.

When Reality TV Meets The Four Agreements

“Chefs, open your baskets.”

On Tuesday evenings, I will often find myself settling into my living room couch in front of our jumbo-sized TV screen for my favorite show, Chopped. On Tuesday evenings, the Food Network will feature a new episode along with older episodes in a veritable marathon of culinary creativity and expert nit-picking.

I normally don’t like Reality TV. Reality TV shows tend to be mean-spirited, frivolous, and – well, not very real. Watching Chopped is a sort of guilty pleasure for me.

Host Ted Allen starts the show by introducing a panel of judges, veteran chefs and successful restaurateurs. Then they provide pre-recorded vignettes highlighting some back story on the evening’s competitors, noting where they’re from, what kind of cooking styles they tend to employ, and offering a hint as to why they want to compete; what it would mean to them to be a Chopped Champion. Early moments of the show will also include close-ups of the competitors’ almost teary-eyed faces as they explain what they would do with the $10,000 prize.

Seeds for some later drama can be sown here. I, myself, have often picked a chef to root for based on a personal story of battling back from cancer, or wanting to go back to Singapore to visit a dying father, or a wish to renovate their restaurant, or a desire to make a child or spouse proud.

The show pits four chefs against each other in preparing a three-course meal from ingredients supposedly a mystery to them until the baskets are opened during the competition. Each course must be prepared in a ridiculously small amount of time and efforts are judged based on creativity, presentation, and taste.

Why am I so enamored with this show that I can watch back to back to back episodes? What is so entrancing about the studio kitchen’s ultra-contemporary stainless steel appliances and homey wicker baskets of ingredients that I would never in a million years think of combining? (Razor clams, lemon flavored jelly beans, canned lychee nuts and fresh matzah – What the __?)

But I love the show. I do.

Creativity in any form makes my heart sing. Culinary creativity is a special delight because a wonderful dish will appeal to my eyes, and nose, and tongue. A really innovative offering may even appeal to my sense of touch. When chefs create dishes that feature complementary textures, I have to consider it almost a tactile quality.

And I guess I like the time element of the competition. We all are given the challenge of making the most out of our lives, making the most out of the mystery baskets of our personal qualities in however much or little time we have on earth. I like how the show allows you to see the bustling activity involved in cooking while the audio runs the different chefs’ voices explaining what they’re trying to do. What an interesting experience, being privy to someone’s inner dialogue!

I also like the surprises that take place in the kitchen as the clock for any one course winds down. Each show has pans full of ingredients that don’t work as they were intended or were burnt and then are thrown in the trash. In each show, there will be a cut finger, or clash between two chefs who want to use the same kitchen device at the same time. You can also witness a kind of ballet that goes on where each competing chef is acutely focused on his own agenda yet choreographs his way through the kitchen, past the burners and utility tables and racks of plates, so as not to disturb the other competitors.

And here is where Chopped meets The Four Agreements; The Four Agreements being Don Miguel Ruiz’s primer on ancient Toltec wisdom. The first three Agreements (Be impeccable with your Word, Don’t take anything personally, Don’t make assumptions) are probably not applicable, but the joy of Chopped is summed up perfectly in the Fourth Agreement; Always do your best.

Whether a guest chef executes his intentions perfectly or not, whether he wins the $10,000 prize and can go home to Singapore or buy a new stove for his struggling tapas bar, it doesn’t matter. I don’t cotton to the cockiness of some chef contestants whose egos are focused on crushing the competition.But when a culinary contestant opens his mystery basket and applies all his imagination and technical training to make something unique and flavorful, when he can express himself fully in the preparation of a meal that can sustain and delight, I can’t help but be impressed.

Anytime you give all you can give to something you love, it’s no small thing.

Like Marilyn Monroe in a Sundress

The other day, I called up my friend Joanne. I hadn’t talked to her since my Mardi Gras party, and I knew she had taken a trip to New York shortly afterwards.

We dispatched my status update quickly. I shared a few details around my efforts to build traffic for this blog and find people who’d be interested in Attitude of Gratitudewriting workshops. We skimmed the topic of my diet and the progress she had made with her personal trainer, an ex-marine who’s not afraid to admit he’s partial to Pilates. Then I settled in for a good New York story.

The hotel she stayed at in Murray Hill, which she thought was going to be posh, turned out to be like a space-saving dorm-o-tel for student travelers, furnished by IKEA. She relayed how she found the perfect pair of black pants at Bergdorf-Goodman, a retail empire I have never ventured into, after finding the perfect New York type of sales lady. You know, the kind that almost immediately announces, I know just the thing – and does. We laughed.

Then she told me the story of her Made in America dream.

Joanne is a very special lady who has taken to a common calling for women and re-invented it.She loves retail, but she loves to do it her way. She loves quality fabrics; how different elements of a person’s look might come together. She has a knack for inward thinking, looking to her own experiences of fashion and shopping, and also looking outward, scanning the Internet or taking special side adventures when traveling, to think of ways she could turn what she values into a successful business.

She ran a shoe business some years ago, starting with both a clear vision and a willingness to adapt. She ran a small storefront carrying lines she loved, securing arrangements, at some points, with manufacturers that could make nice knock-offs of favorite designer offerings. She fine-tuned her niche to focus on wedding shoes, developed an attractive and functional website, then ended up closing her storefront and doing extremely well selling wedding shoes online. Who’d have thunk it?

As I listened to her tell me her plans for starting a new clothing line — the types of styles and fabrics she’d feature, her emphasis on classic over trendy, how her idea sprang from her own unfulfilled desire for attractive, no-fuss day dresses that would be wonderful for spontaneous trips – I had to smile at her enthusiasm. When she told me about how she was led by a Wall Street Journal article to contact a small garment factory in New York during her trip, I was filled with admiration for her spunk.

Who wouldn’t want to look like Marilyn Monroe in one of those classic sundresses? she asked rhetorically after talking about her line’s name, how she plans to handle photography and sell the line without opening a store, how she worked out minimums with the factory manager she met based on the feature in the WSJ. Real quality, classic fashions MADE IN AMERICA, she went on. That’s a great story.

After she closed her shoe business, she went into a sort of cocooning mode. Not being clear about what she wanted to do next, she sat with her emptiness until she knew what she wanted to do. And when she was ready, I could tell she was filled with conviction as well as ideas. I have no doubt she is going to make this happen. The joy that pulsed through her at the notion of making something new a concrete, marketable, job-generating enterprise – was palpable.

And I found myself falling in love with her creation; a concept for a line of clothing, and I am not even a fashionista. Bringing something new into the world is no small thing.

Being There

A couple weeks ago, John and I went to the United Center to see a Bulls game. After looking forward to the date for a while, when the day finally arrived, there was a distinct possibility that we weren’t going to go.

We decided to get tickets weeks earlier, largely on the basis of my analysis of the schedule and more than a small amount of wishful thinking. Like most other basketball fans in Chicago, we’ve been waiting most of this season for Derrick Rose to return from a torn ACL injury suffered during an early round play-off game last year.

I convinced myself (and John) that the Cleveland game would mark Rose’s debut and we purchased tickets online from a season ticket holder who probably didn’t share my conviction about the date for Rose’s return.

But on the morning of the game, local radio sports pundits announced that, despite rumors, Rose was not yet ready for his comeback. To further deflate our enthusiasm about visiting the Madhouse on Madison, we learned that the Cav’s very talented point guard, Kyrie Irving, was not going to suit up either. On top of that, it snowed.

Chicago wasn’t blanketed with paralyzing mountains of white powder, but from the wee hours of the morning through the beginning of the evening commute, heavy wet snow gummed up traffic and kept the salt truck crews busy. We weren’t sure about street parking restrictions being enforced around the stadium and the thought of dropping $20 on top of the cost of the tickets did not thrill us either.

Then the naysayers chimed in via an onslaught of texts. John’s friends, who may have enjoyed going on such an outing themselves when it was first planned, now had a different message; You eating the tickets?

As we gobbled down dinner, John must have asked me ten times, Are you sure you want to go?

I got the distinct vibe that he didn’t. He didn’t want to drive in the mammoth exhaust flavored slushy that the main boulevards were turning into. He was having a debate with himself about the entertainment value of a contest between two teams without their biggest stars.

Maybe it’s the Scottish in me (I had a hard time accepting the idea of not using tickets that were already paid for), but I was pretty adamant about going to the game. The streets were a little slow, but we were not miserable. We were also able to park FOR FREE only six blocks from the stadium.

What can I say, I like BEING THERE. I like being at events — at plays, concerts, friendly card games between neighbors. I appreciate the convenience of cable TV or indulging myself by curling up in a big chair with a big book, but I really like experiencing things LIVE.

We sat in the back row but had good sight lines for the game. An adorable 10 year-old Chinese boy with his Tiger Dad sat next to us. Dad was on his hand-held device the entire time. The giant scoreboard showcased clips of the Bulls acting goofy and occasionally projected images from the crowd. We saw plenty of grown-ups doing totally silly things to get free tee-shirts. There were lots of teens and folks who were not season ticketholders because, we conjectured, people who only got to go as a treat were more willing to make the effort to show up on a snowy night without marquee talent. Players who normally sat on the bench saw significant minutes and used the opportunity to show off their best stuff. The lead went back and forth the entire game. The crowd was really into it.

We ended up losing the game by three points but had a great time. I was happy — walking out of the stadium with other fans, navigating around ice floes on the way back to our car, driving home and listening to post-game interviews on the car radio.

People can make all sorts of excuses for not doing things, for not making the effort. I know I can make up reasons not to do things to avoid being disappointed. I am usually happy, though, when I choose to get to the game (or party or concert).

Being somewhere LIVE is no small thing.

View from the Top

The other night, I went to a party celebrating the twentieth anniversary of a company I frequently do work for. It was quite an affair. Women were asked to wear cocktail attire and men were asked to wear suits for drinks and hors d’oeuvres, dinner and music on the 99th floor of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the tallest building in North America.

Speeches were made and stories told of the company president’s odd jobs before he became a very successful consultant. Thanks were shared generously. Company officers were acknowledged for their hard work while steering the enterprise through economic challenges. Staff and regular contractors were applauded for consistently delivering on client expectations.

It was fun to see co-workers dressed up for the occasion and to see spouses that I had only heard about before. They gave away programs with notes of congratulations from key clients and city politicos, even the mayor. It was nice to feel like a part of the company’s success story, especially since I am not on the official payroll.

After dinner, they had a few special things planned. A mini casino — with craps and blackjack tables and a roulette wheel – was set up along one glass wall. Professional croupiers changed gifted play money for chips and patiently supervised our harmless gambling adventures. And guests were escorted, ten or so at a time, to a private elevator for a short ride to the 103rd floor, the actual observation deck. There, we were invited to step onto a clear fiberglass enclosure, a ledge that jutted out six feet from the face of the skyscraper, so that souvenir photos could be snapped. The pictures made us look like we were floating over the city.

I have been up to the observation deck many times, often escorting teen groups or busloads of seniors touring Chicago, but this night it felt like a new experience. Normally not too thrilled about heights, I summoned up my courage and, like most of the other ladies, made silly comments about the people below being able to see up our dresses. Somehow, in such an intimate group, all of us having a good time, stepping onto the ledge was not as hard as I thought it would have been.

And the view of the city – it was breathtaking!

We could see in every direction. Whether sipping cocktails on the 99th floor or strolling around the top floor waiting our turn to go out onto the ledge, we enjoyed genuine 360⁰s. That in itself is pretty remarkable. How often can you see in every direction? From such a vantage point, you can see how different things affect each other. You can become mesmerized by the flow of traffic or the twinkling of street lights. You can identify patterns of movement or concentrations of objects. Invariably, I felt compelled to try and identify landmarks, buildings or streets or parks that look so different from ground level.

And I found myself shifting between looking at things broadly and viewing things in fine detail. I delighted in my ability to go back and forth. I would look out the window from fourteen hundred feet in the air and see a backdrop of lights and objects and space that I knew from a different perspective as the United Center or the Dan Ryan Expressway or Milwaukee Avenue. Then I would look at my glass and observe, with a sense of wonder, how the squeezed out wedge of lime was disintegrating. Or I’d look at the faces of my co-workers and feel genuine surprise over how the top of the Tower’s moody lounge lighting made them look so different than the people I’d see around a conference table.

During my few seconds on the ledge, smiling for the camera and squeezing my boyfriend’s hand, I thought about why I try to get a window seat when booking air travel. I love looking at the world with panoramic vision because it seems to make me see little things within arms’ reach so much more acutely.

Seeing the world from the top of the tallest skyscraper in North America is no small thing.

Clear Path

While Boston and the Northeast were socked with Nemo, or whatever cartoon character the National Weather Bureau decided to call our recent round of winter storms, it seemed that Chicago pretty much dodged the big white blanket. We’ve barely had a few flurries this season – at least up until Friday.

You wouldn’t have understood the actual scale of our little blizzard based on Thursday’s newscasts. Every major network, led off their five-o’clock broadcasts with news about the approaching weather front. Perfectly coiffed reporters, in their best Eddie Bauer parkas, were stationed in front of heavily traveled toll roads as salt trucks rumbled behind them. Who’d think that a little snow in the heart of the Midwest should be such big news, but fierce snowfalls have crippled our town before and elections have been lost because streets did not get cleaned soon enough.

Before the announced storm hit, I shopped for staples and made sure I knew where my good boots were, the water-proofed ones with the fake fur lining and dependable zippers. John and I made dinner at the usual time then settled in for an evening on the couch in front of the TV. We took turns getting up and looking through the blinds to see when Whipple Street would start looking like It’s a Wonderful Life’s quaint town of Bedford Falls on Christmas. The forecasters were calling for four to six inches, falling mostly between nine o’clock and morning.

On Friday morning, I opened our back door to see an undisturbed layer of sparkly white powder, probably around four inches thick. Ah, how beautiful snow is — at least until people start tracking through it. Before John left for work, he dusted off the steps from our upstairs tenants’ rear landing down to the concrete below our steps and then chiseled out the narrowest of channels leading to the garbage cans in the alley with one short pass of a shovel. We agreed that I would come back out and do a more complete snow removal job later.

When I did walk outside later in the morning, our upstairs neighbors had not yet gone to their car, Except for the narrow groove John forged, the rest of our concrete parking pad was covered with a layer of pristine snow. I had only 45 minutes to make footing it to the alley easy and clear paths along the side of our building, the section of sidewalk in front, and our front stairs (a small courtesy for the postman).

I bent over, shovel in hand, and began experimenting with different strategies. Sometimes, I dug the edge of the shovel down as deeply as I could, until I could hear it scrape against the concrete. I’d scoop up medium weighted loads and toss them to where I imagined the edge of our lawn began. Sometimes I chose the push method, where I would plant the bottom of the shovel against the hard surface and brace myself against the top of the handle, exerting practically all my weight, and drive the shovel forward in a line, pushing the pile of snow in front of me until I could make no more forward progress. I only cleared one shovel width wide of a path along the side of our building figuring it rarely saw traffic, but shoveled the full width of the front sidewalk, mostly, I think, because the neighbor’s did, and made sure the front steps were clean, clean, clean.

I felt my hair was getting matted up, and I could feel my clothes clinging to my body underneath my quilted coat. The snow had basically stopped falling hours earlier, but I saw occasional flakes fall and I opened up my mouth to catch them. I noticed my hips were a little tight, but my shoulders felt unexpectedly loose. I wasn’t cold at all. I was enjoying myself.

I declared my job complete at the appointed time, complete enough, and smiled at having finished the job.

Sometimes in my life, I have prayed for a clear path. It seems only natural to wish someone traveled my route before me to make my steps easier. But then again, I decided that when you can find pleasure in the sensation of sweat dripping from your forehead each time you lift a shovel-full of snow, you can’t help but be grateful that you’ve just been given a shovel.

Being able to clear your own path is no small thing.

For Life

Last Friday, as I listened to the garage door opener sing its mechanical song and waited for the garage door to tuck itself into the ceiling cavity, I breathed deeply as fresh winter light poured into the space. Then I took a good look at my car. The previous weeks of snow flurries, freezing rain, and residual city traffic exhaust soot left a coating that practically beckoned me to run my fingers across its surface and print P-L-E-A-S-E W-A-S-H M-E.

Folded into a short list of other errands I needed to run, I drove to the dealership where I bought the car over a year ago to get my FREE CARWASH. As one of the perks of buying my Jetta, Mid-City Volkswagon offered me an unlimited amount of free carwashes – for the life of the car. I know other car dealers offer similar perks.

What a great feeling it is not to have to line up along a narrow alley until your car can roll through a deluxe car wash where packs of attendants scurry around and through your car with rags and Armor All wiping clean those spots were pressure hoses just can’t reach. And that option is light years ahead of the more common carwash option I used to choose; the $4.95 wash with fill-up at the Mobil Station on Ashland. Timesaving though they might be, I’d end up spending those short pulley operated hauls in a high state of anxiety wondering if I remembered to retract the antenna and praying that the blind metal arms and twirling brushes didn’t leave any scratches.

Once at Mid-City, I pulled up to the service door, handed my keys to one of service managers and explained that I was in for a wash. I was escorted to a waiting room where I could avail myself to their hospitality counter and choose from coffee or cocoa, cookies or fruit. I could watch a giant screen TV or read magazines from their comfy leather chairs, or check my email from one of their large screened Macs while waiting to hear their PA system announcement that Number 257 was washed and ready to go.

Of course I love the feeling of pampering, of being able to take a short break to watch the news or read a magazine I would never think of subscribing to. I love the feeling that I am doing something good for my car and for me (helping keep the car’s value up) without having to go through things I don’t like – waiting in lines or worrying about robotics. But I think I really like the idea that I am entitled to this service for the life of the car. How many things can you think of that are free for life?

I felt compelled to think about this for a while. I know there are products you can buy, like cookware, which comes with a lifetime guarantee, and there are all sorts of extended warranty agreements where you can detail types of services you’d want to receive for five years or longer. But a lifetime guarantee of a product conveys confidence in quality, but does not signal regular experiences of care. Contracts for preventative maintenance or emergency services are great, but each situation requires analysis. You have to make sure the cost of the agreement is not more than the replacement cost for the product based on a typical life expectancy. Cemeteries offer services to be paid out of endowment funds, but that kind of perpetual care is not for enjoyment. It’s just a way of being responsible for family finances.

I’d like to think that I’ll have friendships that will last for life, but these types of things are unpredictable. People can change (or often relationships can become less valuable because others don’t change while you do). I think, though, that my love for music, or the deep respect I have for agile thinking and creativity won’t change. What I value at my core is probably mine for life, and I can renew my connection with these things anytime I go to a concert or lecture, or choose to stop and think, really think.

What I value may be small things, they may not even be on other people’s radars, but I know that what I love most – music, learning, creativity – can be loved for life, and that’s no small thing.

Plays Well With Others

I went into party planning mode about two weeks ago. Fat Tuesday has become MY HOLIDAY. Maybe it’s the sheer playfulness of it, the full-body embrace around the spirit of pure revelry in preparation for real (if you’re a lent observing Catholic) or symbolic (as it is for most of us) renunciation of favorite indulgences. Maybe it’s the time of year. February needs a fun food festival. Am I right? President’s Day just doesn’t cut it.

This year, I held my third Mardi Gras party. Mardi Gras gatherings chez moi have gotten better each year. I’ve expanded my repertoire of Cajun and Creole specialties and have collected more purple and gold banners and strands of beads from my many shopping excursions to the Dollar Tree. I used to raid my local library’s collection of Basin Street themed CDs and now I simply stream WWOZ, the world’s best loved community radio station beaming their brassy celebratory vibes from their studio near the French Market.

This year’s party promised to be extra fun. Since John and I moved to Whipple Street, I now have two full floors to decorate, three bathrooms, and a kick-ass kitchen. Ours is a perfect place to throw a party. And, I LOVE TO HOST PARTIES.

I love to shut off the TV and see people actually talk with each other. I love to feed people, and I really appreciate the art of karma hosting; encouraging guests to bring appetizers or sweets and just see what shows up.

Two weeks ago, I designed an email invitation with photo of second line bands and clip art images of Mardi Gras beads. Following logistical information, the invitation closed with the rallying cry, Laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll.

This year’s annual fete almost doubled in size to include John’s AND my peeps. We geared up to expect up to 25 guests and I ratcheted up my event planning attention. Last weekend, we stocked up on Abita Amber, brewed near Lake Pontchartrain. On Monday, we sent out email blasts to offer tips on parking. Last Friday, I set up a spreadsheet with all my recipes so we could prepare a detailed shopping list.

For two days, I hung decorations and arranged colorful Mardi Gras doubloons around the house. I listened to Trombone Shorty practically non-stop, sort of like a person might smudge an area to make it a sacred space.

And it was a GREAT PARTY! But it wasn’t the food, or even WWOZ’s perfect mix of tunes. The PEOPLE MAKE THE PARTY.

While John and I directed guests to the bedroom where they could stash their coats and attempted to make some level of introductions, we were too preoccupied with things like making sure the jambalaya pot didn’t scorch to make sure everyone was socializing and having a good time. It was so wonderful to scan the scene from time to time and see that mingling and laughter was happening on its own.

We saw that John’s former babysitter (Yes, he has kept in touch with someone who watched over his munchkin self over fifty years ago) was exchanging recipes with my friend Nick who is a theatrical set designer, and my friends Joanne and Jeff were making martinis for themselves then talking travel with upstairs and downstairs crowds. It was a delight to see Nancy and Jim breaking cornbread with Beth and Josh in the kitchen, two sets of people who come from as different ends of the political and interest spectrum as I could imagine. And my friend Lynne – God bless her – she talked to everyone; our neighbors from across the street, Rob and his wife, who is originally from East Germany, friends from my old book club. Every party should have a person with her attitude and conversation skills. John and I were so thankful that, considering we were mixing people from so many different periods of our respective lives, everyone played really well together.

When you can trust others to take responsibility for their own good time and enjoy yourself at your own party, it’s no small thing.

The Breakfast Club

I had never been to Tre Kroner for breakfast before, although the place is legendary in my part of town. They serve up buttery thin pancakes with small sides of lingonberries and authentic Falukorv sausage. The waitresses seem to be recent immigrants from Poland or Serbia, and while not Swedish, their sweet round faces and Old World European politeness only add to the diner’s atmosphere, giving patrons a healthy dose of far away charm close to home.

We got there later than I would usually eat breakfast, at least for a weekday, just past eleven, but in this magical Swedish eatery kingdom breakfast is served all day. Painted scenes of Dalarna (Swedish countryside) grace the walls and servers greet guests with offers of fresh, hot cinnamon rolls as soon as they’re seated.

As I perused the menu and tried to narrow my choices, reminding myself that I could try another dish on my next visit, I looked around the small dining room. Almost every table was full. Tre Kroner boasted a loyal and eclectic clientele; students from nearby North Park College, moms with kids in tow, and lanky old Swedish men, retirees from the neighborhood no doubt, happy to get out of the house and discuss the state of the world with old friends. When John and I lifted our heads above our crepes, we had to smile at these two Lincolnesque silhouetted white-haired gentlemen having a conversation over coffee and cinnamon rolls. We dubbed them Sven and Lars.

Ah breakfast. I knew similar rituals were taking place at Marmalade, Over Easy, and Bakin’ & Eggs. Why should having breakfast out be so much fun? A short walk usually comes along with the decision to have someone else break some eggs for you, and it’s always a treat to eat a meal that’s not confined to ingredients you picked up at the grocery store the day before, but there’s more to it than that.

Giving conscious thought to doing something with others that you could do alone can make a single hour seem especially precious. The day will become flooded with thoughts and tasks soon enough. Setting aside time to swab a short stack with Canada’s finest maple syrup, read the paper while someone else is refilling your coffee mug, or chat up the hostess demonstrates self-care and civility. For me, these moments are sublime.

Whether sitting at a table with a friend or unfolding a newspaper alone at a counter stool, the idea of taking time to be with yourself in a room full of others presents a compelling intersection of basic human desires. I’m reminded that there is no shame in others seeing me in the most basic of daily routines. Besides, breakfast is a time when people like to have what everyone else is having while having it done exactly the way they want.

Being with your neighbors, enjoying the start of the day with something hearty in your belly, a smile from a waitress, and a background chorus of laughter shared between friends is such a delight. Being a member of the Breakfast Club is no small thing.

About Face

Sometimes I take my friend Susan to the grocery store. She doesn’t have a car, and I don’t like the thought of her trudging around town on the bus with her boxes of chicken broth and bag of apples splitting the sides of her Trader Joe’s handled totes. I have to go grocery shopping anyway, I would explain to her, mostly to make her feel better about the courtesy shopping shuttle.

Truth is, I might not need to go shopping, but I would want to offer this service anyway. When we do go out for groceries together, I will generally pick up fewer items. I’ll often zoom through the aisles only to find myself on the other side of the check-out waiting for her to evaluate her options and finish up at the register. I know she feels she has to hurry her browsing, but I don’t mind having this time. It’s private AND public time.

I will often find myself sitting in the sunlight near the cart corral and automatic doors. I’ll let my eyes roll over stacks of local ad papers or bulletin boards where customers give shout-outs or voice complaints. But mostly, I like to sit and people watch.

The other week, I took Susan to Whole Paycheck. I picked up a couple lemons and some Greek style yogurt, which I had missed on my previous day’s shopping excursion, and was sitting at the front of the store waiting for Susan to make her rounds. I zeroed in on a little girl, maybe around five or six. Her feet were planted along the edge of her mom’s shopping cart while she hung her body over the basket. No doubt, she liked the thrill of using her own weight to keep things in balance and not tip the cart over. Her eyes were laughing and her mouth was open most of the time I watched her.

She spent a long time in the produce section. She took time to check out all the different colors of apples but was cautious about pulling any out lest she unintentionally level a carefully built display. She walked ahead of her cart, looking for food to sample I think, but made sure her mother was always in sight.

She had such a sweet face. Not kiddy pageant perfect, but so open. No agenda. No grudges. Her skin was smooth. Her eyes twinkled. Her eyebrows naturally came together over the bridge of her nose when she made an expression. She was so animated, and, as she babbled about her observations, she didn’t seem bothered by whether she had her mom’s full attention or not.

There is something so wonderful about looking into the face of a child. It doesn’t really matter if they are at a grocery store or in a park, at a baseball game or sitting on a bus. It doesn’t matter if they are wearing shorts and tank tops or if they’re bundled in parkas with only a few inches of their faces exposed.

If you look at a child’s face, it always seems like they’re having an adventure.

And I think I like to look at children’s faces just to remember this; that regardless of whether an activity is on a to do list or is simply a happy accident, any undertaking can be done with a spirit of adventure.

How fortunate for me that the world is full of such faces. The possibilities to have such moments are endless. The child does not have to be my child or even someone I know. All children belong to me.

Remembering your own sense of adventure through a child’s face is no small thing.

Good Work

I was very sad to hear of Jerry’s passing. The news came to me via a CaringBridge email notification. I felt a little guilty that I had not stayed in better contact the past few years. He was a remarkable man.

About five years ago, when work was scarce and I felt the need to do more than just jostle some of my routines, I decided to move to Madison Wisconsin. I knew a few people there, knew that there was a vibrant art and music scene, and thought what the hell – I would only be three hours away from Chicago if I wanted a fix of the familiar.

New work opportunities turned out to be harder, rather than easier, to find and, unmarried and fifty, creating new social networks turned out to be much more difficult to create, too. I moved back to Chicago within the year, swapping my new America’s Dairyland vehicle plates back for Land of Lincoln tags.

While I lived in Madison, I did manage to push myself in some new ways. I lost some weight and I took an improv class. I also met some wonderful people. Eager to leverage any possible connection to create a new circle of my kind of people, I almost surprised myself when I acted on my mother’s suggestion to contact a cousin of hers, a woman who, approaching seventy, was neither a peer of my mother’s nor a contemporary of mine.

Judy changed my experience of Madison in so many ways. A poet and Hebrew scholar, she had an unfailing sense of curiosity (she tried to get me to join her for Qi Qong classes more than once) and compassion. She had a lot of empathy for my situation. She didn’t know what to do with herself when she first came to Madison as the wife of a new university professor decades earlier.

I learned so much about friendships, parenting and partnerships from Judy and Jerry. They welcomed me to their home for holiday meals and introduced me to their circles of friends. I observed the high regard their friends and neighbors had for them and saw the easy, yet committed way they tried to be of service to others. When Judy was preparing to have heart surgery, Jerry, recognizing that I was only working part time, paid me to drive her on errands and help with household chores. I would have done these things for no pay, but Jerry was always thinking of ways everyone could benefit. After I moved back to Chicago, I got together with them at Shuba’s, a Lakeview area bar, where their son was playing with other musicians from New York. Jerry pulled me aside and, more than as a proud poppa, told me about the new music his son’s group was creating. I couldn’t help but think that other parents would have grimaced at their far from traditional brand of tunes.

When I read CaringBridge journal entries on Jerry’s last day, Judy and his daughter recounted how he got together with friends from Growing Power shortly before he transitioned. His affiliation with the organization was almost as dear to him as his family, and he requested that if people wanted to make a donation in his honor, Growing Power’s Vertical Farm project would be his preference.

Of course, now I had to learn more about Growing Power. Its mission, I discovered, is to help communities build sustainable food systems with a special emphasis on making good, healthy food available to lower income city dwellers who might not normally think of having this option. Growing Power’s Vertical Farm project centers around developing a five-story facility in Milwaukee, a very cutting edge design that features greenhouses, aquaponics operations, classrooms and market space. What a great idea!

The thought of Jerry’s enthusiasm as an urban planner and an educator made me smile, and I felt good that I was guided to honor his life with a donation to Growing Power. Then a thought about my broader network of relationships surfaced. Why is it that so much of my conversations with others revolve around work or gossip about mutual connections? Why have I spent so little time learning about what inspires my friends? I reminded myself that I would benefit from exposure to the passion people have for different causes and the possibilities that they may direct me to things I would want to do. Perhaps this realization is one more thing to be grateful to Jerry for.

Becoming aware of what inspires the good work of a good heart is no small thing.

Thanks. You’re Welcome. Thanks.

I wasn’t expecting a package. It was after Christmas and long after my birthday. I didn’t remember John or me succumbing to any recent public radio pledge drive that involved receiving coffee mugs or any other kind of premium. I was more than a little surprised when I stepped out our front door to check on the mail and spotted a well-worn brown corrugated box with thinly sketched black arrows pointing upwards and the word FRAGILE marked on two sides. No return label solved the mystery of who sent the package although, from postal stamps, I could see that the box had begun its journey in Sonoma California.

After getting through layers of scrunched up tissue and some newspaper, bubble wrap and extra pieces of corrugated, I uncovered two slightly curved earth-toned, hand-thrown plates – and a card. It was a gift from Rocco.

He wanted to thank us for hosting a few dinners and providing some transportation when he visited Chicago last September, and he expressed the wish that any future trip of ours to California would include a visit.

How sweet and how funny, I thought. Rocco, a neighbor of my friend Lin’s, came to Chicago last September and, after getting an okay from her that he could contact me, ended up spending a good deal of his time here with me and my friends. I love to show off my city and Rocco turned out to be interested in so many things I loved – world music, good wine, travel, baseball. He had already been more than gracious about any hospitality he received from us. He gifted us with two bottles of wine. He brought sweets when we had him over to dinner, and he regaled us with stories of his Chicago adventures (hanging out with a pastor at a south side storefront church) and his other travels.

The plates were beautiful and, as I surmised, were hand-made by a talented potter. (The talented potter turned out to be his wife.) But the timing made the gift seem unexpected and, in light of his other gestures of thanks, went above and beyond etiquette.

Maybe, I considered, this is how the chain of giving and receiving is supposed to work. He came to my city to experience a new place. John and I opened up our home. We offered a few meals and took him to a couple concerts. He said thanks with a couple bottles of wine and his enthusiasm, by sharing with us the fresh way he saw our everyday world. I said “You’re welcome,” I suppose, when I sent him a Christmas card wishing him well and announcing, as one travel enthusiast to another, John and my plans to go to New Orleans for Christmas.

After unwrapping the ceramic pieces he sent and placing them in a perfect spot in our living room, I realized I wanted to say thanks to Rocco. “John,” I called out. “Can you burn a CD from the one we bought from those street musicians we saw in the Quarter?”

I was practically giddy when I slipped a crudely labeled disc into a cardboard fortified photo mailer. Rocco will get a kick out of Doreen’s singing and clarinet wailing for sure.

Saying “You’re welcome” seems to keep the vibrations of genuine thanks resonating. Acknowledging gratitude as a gift itself is no small thing.

In Good Company

When I was a seven or eight, family road trips to the Wisconsin Dells or to South Haven Michigan usually included different sorts of games to pass the time. I would bend one arm at the elbow like the woman in the We Can Do It World War II propaganda poster then pump my fist up and down until passing truck drivers, who were on to the game, would honk their horns. My mother would lead me and my sister in rounds of Twenty Questions and I would go beyond animal, vegetable or mineral start-up strategies to pull out telling clues. And these pastimes were for relatively short trips.
For John and my road trip to New Orleans, occupying ourselves for many, MANY hours was a much bigger issue. We left for Memphis on Christmas morning (basically an eight hour trip without stops), then continued to New Orleans the next day, driving another six hours. Coming back, we drove ten hours from the Crescent City to St. Louis, stopping only for gas, coffee and clean restrooms then drove for five more hours before we could pull into our garage.

Before we left, we thought a good book on tape (CD actually) was in order. In a recent Sunday Times Book section, we found some recommendations under the guise of Christmas gift ideas. The Times reviewer practically gushed about the audio book edition of Junot Diaz’s most recent release: This is How You Lose Her. Read by the author, the tales of a young Dominican man growing up in Jersey seemed to have compelling biographical elements making it hard not to wonder where the lines between fiction and real life may have blurred. I fell in love with one of his earlier books, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so Amazon made an easy sale. I checked out the opening lines, posted on Amazon, before I confirmed credit card info.

“I’M NOT A BAD GUY. I know how that sounds – defensive, unscrupulous – but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.”

I could tell quickly that there was a character here, a real person coming to me as a fictional hero. I suspected that after a few hours bearing witness to his confidences, I would love his candor and question his judgment. This turned out to be more than true. And the language – once we actually started listening to Yunior’s (the main character’s) narrative – so much rang true.

We wanted to really understand his experience. What would it be like to be an immigrant child growing up in New Jersey? To live close to an Atlantic Ocean you never got to see let alone swim in? To witness your father exercise his best networking skills just to find a barber that could cut your pelo malo, your bad (kinky) hair?

The book came in five CDs. We divided our in-car listening time between Diaz’s alter ego, radio stations that weren’t churchy talk shows, and a handful of CDs we brought (Louie Armstrong and Pine Leaf Boys) to psyche us up for our Louisiana holiday. We wanted to savor the stories, the role of confidante, moments of recognition.

We laughed out loud at the way he described his mother and her prayer group friends (The Four Horsefaces of the Apocalypse) and discussed the chronology of the stories to make sure we understood the real life sequence of events of a possibly real (or largely made up) life. We asked ourselves, “Didn’t he mention that his brother, Rafa, died of cancer in disc one but didn’t talk about his last job at The Yarn Barn until much later?”

We wanted the stories to go on, and on – even after the narrator brought us back to the beginning, thematically, with a chapter entitled “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” In all of Yunior’s reflections, perhaps we heard the disparate voices of our own optimism and cynicism, telling us that if we know better we can do better, but somehow not quite believing our ability to change in fundamental ways.

Yes, we loved hearing the street musicians outside the Café du Monde, reveled in the great dinner we had at Herbsaint, and puffed up with pride at the discovery of an actual farmer’s market in the warehouse district, but spending hours in the car with Junot Diaz was another highlight of the trip.

Sinking into universal truths through the telling of another’s personal experience is a special gift.

Having the good company of a great storyteller is no small thing.

A Lack of Lack

I love New Orleans. My first trip there was in 1979. A young twenty-something visiting high school friends who were working there, I fell in love with the streetcars that cruised Canal and St. Charles, views of the Mississippi River, and the mountains of powdered sugar that seemed destined to avalanche from the tops of Café du Monde’s freshly fried beignets onto my well-worn jeans. I loved the street musicians and sketch artists that hung around Jackson Square. I even had a portrait done there during one visit.

I traveled there most recently with a friend in the fall of 2010. I also took my mother there for a long weekend ten years ago. I got her to pop for dinner at The Court of Two Sisters and brunch at Brennan’s. Odd to think about it, but one of my fondest recollections of my mother was her surprise (and spirit of adventure) when I showed her how we could buy gin and tonics, available in GO cups from an assortment of bars, and walk with them down Bourbon Street.

I was looking forward to this trip as the second installment of what I hope to be a yearly Christmastime adventure with John. I think both of us were eager to show the other our favorite places. He wanted to show me fondly remembered eateries, and I wanted to take him to a photo gallery on Chartres that I tripped upon some years back. They had actual prints by Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. We both wanted to indulge ourselves with freshly shucked OYSTERS.

It was probably close to three on our second day there when we headed to Acme Oyster House, a time when we both thought the lunch crowd’s plates should have been cleared away. But the line went a half block out the door. We estimated the wait to be close to an hour. They had NO ROOM. Then we went to Felix’s, a long narrow diner with a lot of local history. The chief oyster shucker could spit out colorful gossip as he poured Abita Ambers, but – and this was hard for us to believe – Felix’s had NO OYSTERS. No fresh oysters. Shuck-uh Khan, as the man behind the marble top liked to refer to himself, explained that they were under new management and might get a delivery around five, but he couldn’t guarantee any fresh oysters would arrive that day. During our Christmas vacation of 2012, we heard no several other times, too.

We could not get a dinner reservation at famous chef Emeril’s restaurant although we were flexible on times. We could not take a tour of the Gibson guitar factory in Memphis because the production line was down for a holiday break. We could not afford to buy the expensive and kitschy artwork that would have made great souvenirs of the trip.

In each instance, when we were confronted by the unavailability of something we planned on, we just made another choice. We had a beer at Felix’s then walked to The Royal House and had Bloody Mary’s and a dozen bi-valves. When we couldn’t get a table at Emeril’s on our last night in town, we dined at Pascal’s Manale, a somewhat lower brow yet quintessentially local spot, and enjoyed our meal. While we didn’t send any art home in a shipping box, we bought a wonderful coffee table book featuring Herman Leonard photographs of famous jazzmen and bought a five dollar laminated card of Saint Fiacre from a street artist working Jackson Square. (The whimsical tarot card like rendering of the patron saint of taxi cab drivers and hemorrhoid sufferers was hard to resist).

We understood ourselves to be lucky; lucky to be able to afford a vacation, lucky to be in a country and a city where being told No to first choices simply meant saying Yes to alternatives. We found a lot of joy in this attitude. We could have chosen to be disappointed whenever a plan was not realized, but we chose to use each detour to make new discoveries. There is such a feeling of abundance in simply refusing to focus on what didn’t happen or what you didn’t get.

Living with a lack of lack is no small thing.

The H Factor

The plan was to leave our home on Christmas morning, hopefully by 10:00. We cleaned most of our Christmas Eve dinner dishes just after our guests left and organized things for packing so we could shower, stow everything in our trunk, and hit the road as early as possible. One of the boons of taking a road trip rather than travel by plane or train is the luxury of packing things at the last minute and not be limited to one suitcase and one carry-on.

In anticipation of not using our kitchen sink for a while, John did a quick calking job before we slipped out and locked the back door. We had cookies, sandwiches and water in a cooler on the back seat, an assortment of CDs, and a small first aid kit (an unexpected brown elephant gift from a Hanukah party a week earlier). We pulled out of our garage at 9:50 to a very light flurry.

“What the f___,” John exhaled, more surprised than angry. “I checked the weather report last night and it was not supposed to snow.”

I sort of liked this paper weight cum sno-globe look for the city, an appropriate parting image for heading south, but I was grateful to be the passenger as we launched our trip. The beauty of freshly falling snow is more easily observed when not driving in it. Fortunately, thirty minutes after we passed the Loop and got on I-57 heading for Memphis, the first stop on our New Orleans 2012 Christmas adventure, the white dust got lighter and lighter, then disappeared altogether.

New Orleans is just over nine hundred miles from Chicago. We planned to stay the night in Memphis on the way down there and stop in St. Louis on the way back, arriving back on Whipple Street News Year’s Eve day, hours before rookie revelers would take to the streets.

We got gas somewhere in southern Illinois and I took the wheel for a while frequently turning on the radio for news and weather updates. We quietly chuckled to ourselves at our good fortune. It seemed that much of the country was looking at a white Christmas. As we zigzagged across Illinois, Missouri and parts of Arkansas on the way to Memphis, we seemed to be just ahead of the weather front and we were making good time.

John took over driving duties again just as dusk crept over the highway. I was happy to relinquish the wheel and smiled even more when Mother Nature started to shower us with a little snow and rain. Somehow John always ended up with driving stints that required more concentration. When we got to downtown Memphis, the streets were deserted. Understandably, Christmas Day was a time most people spent at home with family, but I think the precipitation kept even more people than usual indoors. As a typical southern town, the folks of Memphis freak out in snow. We had a nice meal at a hotel close to ours then returned to our hotel and called it a night.

The next morning, the streets were still under the cover of snow and very few people were out and about. We decided to walk down Beale Street before getting back on the road. A touristy strip of blues clubs, bail bondsmen’s offices and no-frills grills whose signs boasted world famous Bar-B-Q, it was obvious the snow would be keeping patrons away for most of the day. We snapped a few pictures – in front of pawnshop windows, near the Gibson guitar factory, and around various clubs. Snow definitely did not belong in this street scene, and I appreciated the incongruity.

Nature is so wonderfully humbling. It’s easy to get obsessed with plans then be reminded that they’re subject to change based on the weather. Everything we do in our lives is subject to change, but it’s easy to react to unplanned situations as wrong instead of simply surprising.

Being humbled by snow on Beale Street is no small thing.

New Tradition

I never had a Christmas tree while I was growing up, although I had seen my share; natural and aluminum, decked out with strands of tiny lights and topped with ceramic or straw angels that, truth be told, scared the b’Jesus out of me. My very Jewish mother used to combat the omnipresent images of Christmas tree-ocopia that glowed from bay windows up and down our block by displaying an electric Hanukkah menorah in our front window. She would screw in an orange flame shaped bulb for each of the eight days of the festival.

The electric menorah turned me off to holiday traditions for years. When my sister Ronna had her first daughter, while not converting to Christianity, she embraced the Martha Stewart potential of the holiday. She began collecting ornaments, developed her own set of favorite Silver Palette cookie baking recipes, and started throwing what she referred to as Gidget Goes Goyish parties the Saturday before Christmas. I felt slightly warmer about these holiday traditions, but still had not bought in to the whole seasonal celebration thing.

But Ronna’s daughters, Liz and Emma, loved the holidays; baking cookies, collecting ornaments, carefully packing and unpacking them each year and decorating their tree. It practically occupied their entire front room.

My mother and other sister and her husband started having Christmas Eve dinner at Ronna’s as a yearly tradition. Christmas Eve became our family’s focal point for exchanging gifts of the season, although in deference to the Jewish winter holiday, my mother would wrap her presents for her grandchildren in blue paper.

After my sister Ronna passed away eleven years ago, my mother or sister Barbara hosted our Christmas Eve dinner. We didn’t have a tree, but we had champagne and we unwrapped presents and indulged in cookies galore.

This year being the first in my new home, I wanted to host our family’s feast. Staging the meal itself did not faze me. But for this Christmas Eve, I wanted a tree, a real tree, the kind that fills the house with the scent of pine and splashes the carpet with short green bristles that cling to the floor. I wanted to cover it with very bright strings of lights and plenty of ornaments. And I really wanted my sixteen year-old niece to help decorate. She missed sharing this tradition with her mother. She was only five when Ronna died.

I counted myself lucky that my boyfriend cum housemate had five strings of multicolor Christmas lights and a box of old ornaments from his mother, which he somehow retained custody of when he and his ex divvied up their household. His collection included a small rectangular mirror and figurines of skaters which his mother cherished as part of her family’s Christmas decorations since she was a child.

Last Saturday, John and I bought a tree, a Fraser Fir. We tied it to the roof of his Toyota to get it home, carried it to our living room, anchored it in its stand, and made sure it had ample water. On Sunday, we invited Emma over for dinner. I made a roast beast and sweet potatoes. We listened to favorite holiday CDs, Vince Guaraldi (think Schroeder from Peanuts’ Christmas theme) and the Roche sisters. Emma directed John’s electrical work then hung his decades-old shiny glass ball ornaments around the tree as if she had been working with the same collection for years. After making the salad, I came out of the kitchen to observe their handiwork. I was delighted. Later in the week, I made a tree skirt out of some dark green fabric and placed the figurines of the skaters under a low hanging branch.

I think I’ve started a new tradition. It was a joy to see Emma’s imagination at work as she hung ornaments, and I was happy that we could tell John’s mother Dee that something she treasured long ago had been taken out of the box to cast its charms anew. I think John and I felt very good about creating a feeling of warmth and love in our home in the form of our new tree decorating tradition.

Starting a new tradition in honor of an old one is no small thing.

My Mother’s China

With the holidays coming up fast, over the past few days I started thinking about hosting my family’s Christmas Eve dinner. I found myself becoming obsessed with an unexpected thought, and I added a mission to my holiday to do list.

I had to get my mother’s china.

My mother passed away in April of 2011. In October of that year, my sister and I sold her condo. Before we turned over the keys, we sorted through clothes and jewelry that accumulated over nearly ninety years, each of us claiming some pieces and boxing up other things for different charity donations. Since I did not have much storage space in the apartment where I was living, I considered myself lucky to be able to store some boxes in my friend Nancy’s basement.

My mother’s china was part of her legacy to me. Twelve place settings of Bavarian (Tirschenreuth) china – dinner plates, salad plates, bread plates, dessert plates, soup bowls, fruit bowls, cups with painted rims and delicate curved handles, and serving pieces for an unimaginable feast — were painstakingly wrapped and boxed by Barb and Tina, my mother’s cleaning lady, and me over a year ago. The set had been sitting in Nancy’s basement in Riverside waiting for me to have a permanent home for them. I moved last May, but I didn’t think much about reclaiming these boxes until now. And now, it felt urgent that I do so.

I called Nancy. She wasn’t planning on being home, but her boyfriend Jim could let me in. I canceled all other plans for Thursday and drove out to Riverside. I probably spent the first fifteen minutes staring numbly at the few stacked boxes in one corner of her basement. I cut through the packing tape on the top of each box, hoping that a simple peek inside would reassure me that I had found what I was looking for, but only newspaper and other packing materials were visible, and I was not about to unwrap each item.

My mother’s belongings included glassware, a barely used Cuisinart, and a kitschy bright orange set of espresso cups. Two medium-sized boxes seemed to contain the porcelain crockery I came for. There is no way, I thought, that my mother’s monster set of tableware could be contained in so few boxes; lightweight boxes at that. I called my sister by cell phone from the stairway to Nancy’s cellar. “Do you think you might have some of mom’s china in your basement?” I asked. She looked where she stored her collection of boxes from our mother’s and called me back to say no. She had no boxes of our mother’s china. We asked each other, “Do you think the movers lost any boxes?”

At this point, there would have been no way to retrieve anything from the moving company. After all, the move took place over a year ago. I finished loading my car and drove home. As I drove home, I found myself entertaining unhappy, but very familiar, thoughts. My mother had not given me the attention and affection I craved. How fitting, I thought, that the one thing I wanted from her collection of possessions was something that I could only have in an incomplete state.

Once home, I started unwrapping the individual pieces, spreading them out on my dining room table. I couldn’t believe it. How could so much wrapped china have fit into so few boxes? Except for having only eleven dessert plates, a casualty from a cousin’s club gathering most likely, my table ended up holding twelve of every piece plus gravy boats, the sugar bowl and creamer, a soup tureen and lid, and two large serving platters. Everything I could think of was here.

And this made me think about my middle-aged life, where I am at today. I thought about my hurts and disappointments, my challenges, my burdens and slights — real or imagined. I turned out all right, didn’t I? My mother may not have given me everything I wanted, but I grew up. I formed relationships. I have contributed to the lives of others.

What she gave me was complete enough. Like my mind’s focus during my ride home from Riverside, all too often, I have chosen to place my attention on what I thought to be missing.

Being able to drop expectations of disappointment and see the fullness and completeness of things as they are is no small thing.